Ode to Risotto
by Donald Newlove
We were taken to the Gotham Restaurant tonight and I had duck and turnip risotto among the fancy folk and sophisticates. Hard to believe that a few turnip cubes and rich slices of duck could so ennoble a plate of rice. Rice!—the blank canvas for chefs. Into it they may plunge whatever inspires their noses and palates. No chef worthy of his toque places before us exactly the same risotto twice—no, we never step into the same stream twice. Nor can he repeat a risotto even if he wants to, since the flavors and ingredients change with the seasons, and the body changes, and we are not the same person we were even a month ago. Nor can he truly copy another chef’s risotto. But who would want to when rice allows him to shine, create, and mix his favorite flavors in their most secret shadings.
Whatever other wiles a chef has, his risotto variations remain his most fully realized hidden passion. Anyone can bake a squab. Well, pretty much anyone. But a risotto of undercooked baby clams enriched with clam juice long-simmered in far more delicate seafood stock and seasoned with a dash of white wine may well strike the palate with the outcry of a lost virginity’s little death, no matter how many times we’ve had baby clam risotto. I’d thought of posting here a small piece about sex and food (“her tongue was peaches and dreams”) but that’s already been done in Tom Jones with apples and drooling pears. I scoff at ripe fruits when a great double-bed of risotto rises to my nose from the arms of a wise old wife who knows all my hungers and can drive mere squab-and-chicken sex out of the universe.
I was led into my risotto obsession but a few years past, by the thrilling Madeleine Moontree in her apartment overlooking the Hudson, along the Spuyten Duyvil coast of great chefs. Just as chefs cook quite simply when home alone (a ground meat patty with a dash of A-l Sauce worked in), Manhattan chefs live quite simply away from the city’s police and fire sirens. Madeleine Moontree even foregoes television, parking her set in the closet. The evening dusk flows from horizon to far horizon as she sets before me a long flat bowl filled with colored rice and a strange mix of saucy smells. What’s this! I ask.
Seafood risotto, she says. Each color is a different seafood. It always comes in colors?
This is the flag of Italy. The rice is short-grained Arborio.
I see. Not Uncle Ben’s minute rice?
This has taken me all day. Dive in.
Ahh! I moan. Seafood and porcini mushrooms! Shrimp! Scallops al dente! Topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Sumptuous—and yet so earthy. You must give me the recipe.
There isn’t any. I never repeat myself.
You mean I’ll never have this dish again? Not for the rest of my life!
Not until you get to heaven, Donald. But maybe I can improve on it. I have a lobster and wild mushroom risotto I’m dreaming up. But it’s a trifle pricey, takes two lobsters. Cut up, of course. A little truffle essence to lend the lobster a smoky boost. And always a sweep of parmesan.
That night I go home and dream of the savory Queen of Heaven Madeleine Moontree as we fall into each other’s arms and roll about in a tub of lobster risotto borne aloft during the St. Anthony’s Day parade in Little Italy, a scene beloved by viewers of Godfather II. Such dreams, often shading into dementia, are the cryptic, indeed tragic symptoms of twilight and senility in aging food writers who eat too much dessert cheese before bed and then must face nightmares of public nudity or of madmen thickening their risotto sauces with flour and garnishing their table with cole slaw slathered with Russian dressing for zest.
And so it was that I entered the world of risotto and ever since have known at once what I will order at whatever posh digs I am invited to. I need but glance at the menu to assure myself that some splendid adventure lies before me this evening if I but ignore the standard entrées and follow the treasure map that Chef has drawn just for me, the thick rich parmesan and puréed artichoke risotto (God, it’s almost a green cheese pudding but enriched with nutty artichoke), the simple butternut squash and minced shallots risotto, the fennel and onion risotto with peas and pecorino Romano, the red wine risotto with grated Romano and herb-crusted salmon, the even simpler shrimp and pea risotto with parmesan, the ritzy beetroot risotto, the wild mushroom and spinach risotto, the red kidney bean with fresh sage risotto, a basic chicken livers risotto, the meat sauce Bolognese risotto, the vegetarian asparagus and zucchini risotto with pine nuts, and even the Queen of Heaven Madeleine Moontree’s Lobster and Wild Mushroom risotto with two whole lobsters cooked and cut into bite size pieces. (Serves one.)
|In addition to First Paragraphs (Owl Books, 1993) and Painted Paragraphs (Henry Holt, 1993), Donald Newlove is the author of several critically acclaimed novels and a memoir, Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers. He lives in Greenwich Village.|