June 1st, 2010
A recent post on Mom-101 (the 5/27 entry titled A rivederci, Gino) is a touching tribute to a favorite restaurant that got me thinking about the emotional resonance of food. About dishes from our childhoods. Places where we shared (or maybe still share) meals with the most important people in our lives. Tastes that cause a flood of memories in an instant.
I’ve written here about my childhood memories of food. About my grandmother’s cooking, family holiday meals and growing up in restaurants. But I’ve yet to talk about memories of the other most important time in my life with food: my post-college adventures exploring the culinary delights of New York City. This is when I got serious about food. And when I fell in love. With food… and with the Hungry Papa.
The Hungry Papa and I moved in together immediately upon my graduation from college. It was a bold (and kinda stupid) move, but there was no other way we could afford to live in NYC. Tight on budget, we did a lot of cooking. Partly because we were trying to save money, partly because we were playing house. At least at first.
I made things like (I KID YOU NOT) instant mashed potatoes and ground beef with taco seasoning, and thought it was brilliant. Keep in mind all those childhood memories I’ve shared with you; I did not grow up in a home with instant mashed potatoes. See, I didn’t think my creations were brilliant because they were the pinnacle of culinary mastery—I knew that they weren’t even close. In fact, I was well aware that some of my creations pushed the line between acceptable and gross. But I loved the experimentation and these were the ingredients available to me. This was the first time I started playing with food just to see what would happen.
As we earned a little more money, we began eating out more. We started with cheap eats all over the city, but especially in the outer boroughs. We fancied ourselves intrepid explorers and tried to use what we learned in the dingy (but delicious) eateries of deep dark Queens, NY in our own kitchen. I stopped using nasty ingredients like instant mashed potatoes and started exploring the specialty shops in our neighborhood, which bordered on Italian and Middle Eastern sections of Brooklyn. I became friendly with my butcher and fish monger. I bought in bulk. I traveled to Union Square in Manhattan for the green market.
Our budgets grew a little more. My cooking got more refined. We started going to nicer restaurants. We fell in love. With food and each other. And the two were most certainly linked. Our relationship was passionate (i.e., tumultuous). We were in our early 20′s, trying to be in a serious relationship. Not easy. But we made it. And we can thank, in part, our shared and ever-growing passion for food. Arguments resolved over dinner. Bad feelings dissipated as we shared some new food. And each exciting food outing reminded us of how much fun we have together.
In those few years after college, as my interest in food went from the experimentations of a young woman playing house with the man she would (many years later) marry, to the disciplined approach of someone looking to make food a part of her professional life, the Hungry Papa and I shared some of the most important food memories of my life. One that I think of often happened at a downtown Italian eatery that was, when we were still on a tight budget, our only-on-special-occassions spot. This was the first restaurant that made us feel like we were young people living it up in NYC. We’d get dressed up and declare that money was no object (not that you could spend all that much there!). And then we’d feast on fresh, seasonal food that was, to us, back then, a revelation.
The most exciting thing that we ate at our special place was a Risotto del Bosco, which translates to “risotto of the woods.” It was made with mushrooms and blueberries, and I remember it being exquisite. It’s my first memory of eating fruit in a savory dish that isn’t tropical and has stuck with me to this day. In fact, it inspired a long-lasting curiosity of combining fruit and savory herbs (basil and peach, blueberry and tarragon, etc).
I can’t believe that it’s taken so long for me to make a risotto inspired by that Risotto del Bosco. Funny that it took reading about someone else’s restaurant memory. Either way, I finally did it. I made a blueberry and mushroom risotto (and I added mascarpone—I have no idea if the “original” did). It was delicious, but I don’t know that it could ever be as delicious as the one from that sweet Italian restaurant. Because it’s not really about the taste, is it?
Oh, and by the way… though that young girl, dressed up for a night out with her boyfriend, had no reason to care about whether little ones would enjoy a risotto with blueberries, this girl, in love with two new boys, does. And she —I—can tell you that it’s a hit. Both the Hungry Boy and the Hungry Baby ate some. The Hungry Boy even ate the mushrooms because he was so excited about a dinner that had blueberries in it. It’s a fun surprise for little ones.
Risotto del Bosco (Risotto of the Woods with Blueberries & Mushrooms)
(can be served to kids 8+ mos)*
1/4 c olive oil
1 c chopped onion
4 oz mushrooms, sliced (I used a combo of baby bellas & shitake)
1 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme
1 c aborio rice
1/4 c white wine (optional)
6-8 c broth (vegetable or chicken, I used the latter)
3 Tbsp mascarpone
1/4 c grated cheese
salt and pepper
3/4 c blueberries
1. Heat stock to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to lowest setting, keeping the broth hot but making sure that it doesn’t cook off.
2. Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and saute until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and thyme. Saute until mushrooms soften, another 3-4 minutes.
3. Add rice, stirring to make sure that all of the grains get coated with oil, and cook until rice begins to turn translucent, another 2 minutes.
4. Add wine. Cook until most of the liquid is absorbed.
5. Begin adding broth, 1/2 cup at a time. Stir constantly, waiting for each batch of broth to be about 3/4 absorbed before adding the next. (One way to tell if it’s time to add more broth: your spoon should leave a trail that holds for a moment as you drag it across the bottom of the pan.) Risotto is done when the rice is al dente—is should be cooked through but still be a little toothsome. You may not use all of the broth. In fact, towards the end of the cooking process—which should take about 18-20 minutes—start tasting along the way and adding broth in amounts less than a 1/2 cup.
6. Turn off heat. Stir in mascarpone. When fully incorporated, stir in grated cheese, salt and pepper. Fold in blueberries last. Do this with only a few, gentle stirs—you don’t want them to break. Serve.
*Note: If you’re taking a liberal approach to introducing solids, you can feed this to very beginner eaters. (My 7-month-old had some for dinner, sans mushrooms.) Otherwise, hold off until 8 months, when mushrooms and blueberries are traditionally introduced. At whatever age, be sure to grind or mash to appropriate consistency for young eaters.