Awesomely Overwhelming

Moving to a new city is so surreal. For starters, it’s an incredibly ginormous amount of work. You have to register your car (or just buy a new one and get your stuff in the mail!), change your address (which took 2 months to successfully complete, thanks to the Chicago post office), find all the nearby necessities, watch your husband near ’bout reach full panic mode when setting up the surround sound (that we need! we need!), sell and purchase furniture, deal with ‘craigslist crazies’, find a new home for the litter boxes, figure out the neighbors’ schedules so you know when they’re going to play their techno and when you get to play yours (well, not techno, but real music), and by now you probably get the point:

Moving is not something I hope to do again any time soon.

On top of the general logistics that are thankfully nearing an end, you get some fun things too – especially here in San Francisco, where fun seems somewhat contagious; if you don’t believe me, take a gander at the happenings of this past weekend. You get a brand new food culture: new restaurants to try, new delivery options (Indian! Mexican! Japanese! Burmese!), new farmers’ markets, and new seasonal produce. It’s awesomely overwhelming. But in a totally good way.

Last week, I realized that I am having a really hard time with the latter though; I can’t for the life of me adjust to the multitude of fresh produce, the differences in timing of say, the availability of ramps (I missed them this year – damnation!) or avocado (all year compared to never in the Midwest) or cherries (now! – I don’t have to wait until July/August!). I can’t figure it all out, at least not yet. But that’s probably because I’ve been buried under a box or two, or refinishing a desk, or putting the mattress I was conceived on out front for the Salvation Army pickup (too much?).

Either way, I am definitely thankful for the cheat-sheets. Luckily for me, a fellow Chicagoan to SF transplant and culinary school classmate moved out here about 6 months before me, and she’s found a handy guide to Bay Area produce that I plan to procure soon. And while the ones pictured here aren’t, I am excited about buying fresh peas, and berries, and avocado, and next April, those damn ramps I so sadly missed out on because I was busy doing, you know, other things.

But now, now I’m ready for the produce. I’m ready for the good food, the grilling out and having a drink on the back deck, the (hopefully soon) lazy Saturday that just begs for a trip out to an oil store or a new cheese shop (of which there are many), and the Sundays that are meant for bike rides through our neighbor, Golden Gate Park, or along the ocean, or maybe even just down the street for coffee.

Pea & Bacon Risotto
adapted from Food & Wine, May 2011; serves 6

Risotto, I have missed you. It’s been a while, but for some reason I had the urge to stand at the counter and stir, stir, stir. This is probably one of the best risottos I’ve had: the salty bacon, the squishy peas, and the rich cheesy, buttery finish – it deserves the time it takes, and even more.

time commitment: 50 minutes

printable version

ingredients
6 oz lean bacon, diced
2 c frozen baby peas, thawed
2 T olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 c carnaroli rice (arborio works fine, too)
1/2 c dry white wine
7 c simmering chicken broth
1 T unsalted butter
1/2 c freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 T fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper

instructions
In a large Dutch oven, cook the bacon over moderate heat until crisp, 6 minutes. Drain the bacon on paper towels; reserve 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat.

Meanwhile, in a food processor, puree half of the peas with 1/2 cup of water. Heat the chicken broth in a large saucepan and keep at a low simmer.

In the same Dutch oven, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until softened, 5 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, until the rice is evenly coated with the oil. Add the wine and simmer until almost evaporated, 3 minutes.

Add chicken broth, 1/2 cup at a time, to the rice mixture and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the broth has been absorbed. Add more stock to cover the rice. Continue cooking and stirring, adding more broth as it is absorbed, until the rice is al dente and suspended in a creamy sauce, ~25 minutes. Add the pea puree, the remaining peas and the bacon and cook, stirring, until hot. Remove the risotto from the heat and stir in the butter, reserved bacon fat, cheese and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.

Balls to the Wall

You’ll note that this site is a little skimpy on the appetizers. Well, sorta. Here’s the deal: there’s a direct correlation between the length of the snack section and the number of dinner parties I either host or attend. Aside from Iron Chef, they’re sadly few and far between. As a result, the stack of ‘to make’ appetizer recipes is rather long, often from way-old magazine editions, and even those recipes often get tossed out before they get their chance to shine.

Every so often though, I hold onto one for dear life, desperately hoping for an excuse to try it out, and to share it with some well-deserving friends. Sometimes it just takes a while, but those recipes eventually surface, and then I wonder why I waited so long. I mean really, appetizers can be shared among two people, right?!

Sure they can, but sharing them is much better because that often means that you get to partake in some of their goodies, too. Even so, while toiling over what to make for a recent dinner party with a bit of an Italian theme, I still almost skipped over one of the oldest recipes in my stack – a classic Italian appetizer called arancini. Sure, it seemed perfectly appropriate, but I questioned the richness, the heaviness, and the carb load, not to mention whether or not I truly had the time to churn these puppies out. But in a fit of genius, I realized none of it mattered and they absolutely, positively had to be made.

It was one of my moments of superior thinking; those, my friends, don’t come along nearly as often as I’d like.

What are arancini? Let’s pare this down a bit: fried risotto balls, although that doesn’t really do this intensely awesome appetizer much justice, to be honest. You start out with a simple version of risotto, spiced with saffron, and you let it cool until you can play with it, er, divide it into 16 pieces and roll each into a ball. I made the risotto the night before and rolled them the following morning, since I was already pressed for time. That’s actually perfect; in fact, the Italians supposedly make arancini out of leftover risotto, since the quality of risotto diminishes so much when it’s no longer fresh.

Then you open ’em up and stuff ’em with cheese, or cheese and nuts, or in this case – cheese, nuts, and peas. You stitch them back together into their newly rotund selves, treat them to a bath of egg and breading, and await the heating of the oil – their final destination. Final, of course, until they get in your, er, you and your friends’, bellies.

Worth the work? Hands down, yes. Once fried, they are served warm (or rewarmed) – the outside crunches and sounds like a crisp bite into a potato chip, the smell makes you wonder if this is what paradise smells like and if so, why you haven’t been to Italy again in so long (or ever). And do I need to describe the taste of risotto? I hope not, but after the crunchy exterior comes that creamy ricey goodness and a string of mozzarella oozes out of the epicenter, which is dotted with the crunch of a pistachio. You practically kick yourself for waiting so long to make this, and then you seriously kick yourself again when you realize that, not only did you wait almost a year to make arancini, but now you have to share the damn things.

Sharing sucks, sometimes.

Pistachio-Cheese Arancini
Adapted from Food & Wine, December 2009; makes 16

time commitment: 2-2.5 hours, most active

printable version

ingredients
2 1/2 T unsalted butter
1 small onion, minced
1 1/2 c carnaroli rice (about 10 ounces; arborio works well, too)
1/2 c dry white wine
Pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 c chicken broth, warmed
3 T freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 T all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 c plus 2 T milk
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
4 oz fresh mozzarella, finely diced
1/4 c plus 2 T chopped salted pistachios
2 T frozen baby peas, thawed
2 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 c panko bread crumbs
canola oil, for frying

instructions
In a large saucepan, melt 2 T of the butter. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly browned, 7 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, until well coated with butter. Add the white wine and saffron, season with salt and black pepper and cook, stirring, until the wine is absorbed, 2 minutes. Add the warm chicken stock 1/2 cup at a time and cook, stirring constantly between additions, until it is absorbed. The risotto is done when the rice is al dente, 25 minutes total. Stir in the grated cheese, transfer to a bowl and let cool.

Melt the remaining 1/2 T of butter in a small saucepan. Add the 1/2 T of flour and whisk constantly over moderate heat for 1 minute. Add the milk and cook, whisking, until thickened. Season with the nutmeg, salt and black pepper and transfer to a bowl to cool completely. Stir in the mozzarella, pistachios and peas.

Line a large baking sheet with wax paper. Put the eggs, panko and flour for dusting in 3 shallow bowls. Using lightly moistened hands, shape the rice mixture into 16 equal balls. Working with one ball at a time, make an indentation in the center with your finger and press the sides to make the hollow larger. Spoon a T of the pistachio filling into the hollow and press the risotto around the filling to enclose it. Transfer the ball to the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining risotto and filling. Dust the arancini with flour, tapping off the excess. Coat them with the egg and roll in the panko.

In a large, deep skillet, heat 1 inch of vegetable oil to 350 F. Fry the arancini over moderate heat, turning occasionally, until golden and heated through, 8 minutes. Drain the arancini on paper towels and serve hot. If prepared in advance, reheat arancini in a 350 F oven for about 10-15 minutes.