Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
Fun with peas, an epicurean guide to risotto

I’m a member of a community-supported agriculture program, which means that, once a week, I get a refrigerator full of veggies from Victory Farms in Phoenix.

It’s a great way to get fresh, seasonal produce, and a few weeks ago, I was delighted to find shelling peas added to my weekly share.

You don’t see shelling peas too often--in their shells, I mean. Unlike sugar snap peas, the pods of these are inedible (or at least not too tasty).

Consequently, most shelling peas end up, well, shelled: in cans or in the freezer.

Shelling peas get tougher the longer they sit around, so I immediately converted my own bounty into risotto. And risotto is what I really want to write about, because my risotto with peas reminded me of how good the stuff can be.

Risotto is an Italian dish. Like a lot of Italian specialties, it’s soul food with sophistication--stick-to-the-ribs satisfying, yet somehow also a delicacy.

In essence, it’s rice. But not just any rice. Risotto is made with particular varieties of starchy, short-grained rice, which create their own creamy sauce when cooked a particular way.

Here in the States, Arborio is the most common risotto rice. I buy it in bulk, but you can also find it bagged at the grocery store.

Should you wander into a specialty foods shop, know that Carnaroli and Vialone Nano will also do the trick--and according to the Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, Carnaroli is “unquestionably” the best.

Into this succulent, starchy base can go all kinds of goodies: peas and feta cheese; mushrooms; mussels; even diced or pureed butternut squash.

I’ve had an ethereal abalone risotto and a homey version with smoked chicken. Risotto can be hearty enough for a main course or light enough to work as a starter--and every variation builds on the same basic formula.

Although risotto isn’t difficult to make, it does demand attention. Be prepared to give it a good half-hour of stove time, on top of the time you devote to prep work.

For six servings, start by sautéing, over medium heat, half of a small onion in two tablespoons of butter. Use a heavy 3- or 4-quart pot.

When I made my risotto with peas, I replaced the onion with a few thinly sliced leeks. Risottos invite improvisation (but I do suggest going easy on the garlic).

When the onion is soft, stir in 2 cups of dry risotto rice. Stir with a wooden spoon until the grains are coated with butter.

Now add 1/2 cup of dry white wine. The wine will sputter and evaporate almost immediately; stir constantly so that the rice won’t burn.

You don’t have to use wine here--you can opt instead for more of the water or broth that you’ll use to finish the cooking.

“Marcella” (as she’s known to her fans) is very specific about the kind of fine homemade meat broth she likes in risotto, but I’ve never followed her directions to the letter.

The key thing is to consider what kind of risotto you’re making, and what kind of liquid will complement it. Take my pea risotto. I made a weak broth by briefly simmering the leftover pods in water, and skipped the wine altogether.

If you’re making a seafood risotto, use water, plus the juices from cooked clams or mussels (you’ll stir in the meat itself at the end).

I’ve also made risottos using generous amounts of red wine — the result is a lovely purple.

Well, whatever liquid you’re using, add another 1/2 cup of it now! Keep stirring, and when that liquid is nearly gone, add another 1/2 cup.

Continue the process until the rice becomes noticeably tender. Then add liquid 1/4 cup at a time, so that when the risotto is done — firm to the bite, but no longer chalky — it won’t be excessively soupy.

Stir in salt to taste, two or three tablespoons of butter, and anything else that strikes your fancy. Freshly grated Parmesan cheese should be the first addition you consider: indeed, a basic risotto with Parmesan cheese may be as good as it gets.

Now pour yourself a glass of wine and raise a toast to spring. Happy eating!