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risotto with prosciutto, peas and mushrooms

That was yesterday evening!  OK, so there are a huge number of foods that I have never made in my life, which in each case means that I am waiting patiently until the right time, a special occasion or inspiration arrives–or I am possibly intimidated by trying to make a familiar/famous dish (you know, like osso bucco, Cherokee bean bread, paella, souffle, tamales in banana leaf, creme caramel, etc).

I have cooked lots of things over the years that I have been pleased with- bunches of recipes from Julia’s cookbooks, reproducing a correct, authentic red chili the way the Tohono O’odam ladies taught me one summer in California.  Cooking greens, making authentic old Moravian recipes (Christmas cakes, lovefeast buns, sugar cake) and even making homemade tofu from scratch with dry soybeans.

So Risotto, a simple seafood risotto, was what I finally worked up the nerve to cook last night.  It was mostly about 45 minutes of constant stirring of arborio rice in chicken broth, which is what all the recipes say, and it’s what you see on TV if you happen to catch someone on a cooking show making risotto.  It was very exciting to see the risotto take shape on top of my stove, and even though it was almost an hour of careful, nonstop stirring and cooking, it is worth the effort.

I got the inspiration because I was at the grocery store and I picked up a packet of arborio rice , which I have done dozens and dozens of times in the past.  But I looked at the price, realized it wouldn’t put a bad dent in my food budget after all, and then I got a small packet of frozen, mixed seafood for about three or four dollars.  All reasonably affordable.

Here’s how I made it:

4 cups stock (I used chicken)- heat it and keep it simmering the whole time.

12 oz by weight of arborio rice

2 Tbsp good olive oil

2 Tbsp butter

1 onion chopped

1 clove garlic minced into atoms

2 bay leaves

grating of the zest of 1/2 a fresh lemon

a grating of nutmeg

salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup of a white wine, or you can substitute a little apple or white grape juice with a  spoonful or 2  of cider-, or white-wine, vinegar if you don’t use alcohol.

big handful of chopped fresh parsley (probably 1/4 to 1/2 cup)

2 cups fresh or frozen peas

1/3 cup heavy cream (you can use half and half, or even milk if you want)

small bag (1 pound) frozen, previously uncooked, ready to stir-fry mixed seafood).  This will probably be a mixture of scallops, shrimp and calamari.

-a couple of good handfuls of grated or shredded good Parmesan cheese

Chop your onion (I used a medium onion) and let it sweat over medium heat in a very large heavy skillet with a couple of Tbsp of olive oil, along with the bay laurel, and a pinch of salt (that helps the onion cook) and quite a few grinds of black pepper, the lemon zest and the nutmeg.  Begin adding liquid, beginning with your wine or apple juice/vinegar, after you have added the garlic a few minutes into the process.  Add the 2 Tbsp of butter.

Stir everything well together and begin adding your hot stock to the rice.  You will now start stirring this dish almost without stopping for nearly the next 1/2 hour.  Maybe not quite that long.  But basically, you add the hot stock by the cupful or ladleful, and keep stirring gently over medium-low heat for a good 20-24 minutes.  Just turn on some good music, clear your thoughts and focus on making this gorgeous rice.  Why did I ever wait this long to make it??  Meanwhile heat another good heavy skillet to stir fry your seafood- the frozen product I had said that you can stir fry it in 3 minutes or under, right from the freezer.

During the last 4-5 minutes, add a couple cups of shelled green peas- tiny spring peas would be best, but any frozen pea will do the trick.  Now stirfry your seafood as you continue to stir the risotto.  Congratulations, you have now run out of hands to stir things with.  The only important thing to keep in mind with your seafood, above all, is not to overcook it- everything will turn to rubber and you will spend more time chewing your risotto than it took to cook.

After a few minutes, you can add the cooked seafood directly to the rice (there will be some cooking liquid that comes from the seafood- simply add the whole thing, along with a handful of Parmesan (maybe 1/4 cup to start) and a 1/3 cup of cream or milk.  Keep stirring, and finally when everything seems to be a big creamy, bubbling mass, throw in the parsley.  Correct seasoning, maybe add a little more Parmesan and you have made a simple, proper risotto.

This is a whole bunch of fresh veg from the Minneapolis Farmers Market this morning- my good friend Catherine and I got there just after 7A (because I was LATE), and that’s just enough time before the pavilions get stuffed with people. We both saw people we knew and you could actually stand and talk for a minute.

A few of my friends said make a food blog, so I am making a food blog because I like writing about food, cooking food, feeding people, being fed by people, reading world food history. I used to be part of an organic, vegetarian, collectively owned restaurant (years ago), and I worked with my sister (a very good cook) and mom (a very good cook) and we put together- well, we’re still putting together- the beginnings of a family cookbook, with table of contents, pictures of family, scans of original handwritten recipes in pencil or ink- on very delicate yellowing paper. Recipes that start out at the top: “Chopped Pickle (Good)” , or “Pound Cake (Mrs. Hal Dixon”).  Those kind of recipes- and you can see the similarities in the handwriting of four generations of women. Which is kind of amazing all by itself.

Grandma Dickey’s Green Tomato Mincemeat, Buttermilk Pie, Mom Giesler’s Sauerkraut and Dumplings, Dark Fruit Cake, Pecan Nut Cups (‘mix dough by hand while watching TV’, so I do). Vi Peterson’s Peach Pie, Applesauce Cookies, Moravian Love Feast Buns, Moravian Sugar Cake, Beef Stew, Pork Fried Rice. I added one more Moravian recipe to the family’s recipe file, and we started making Moravian Christmas Cakes at least 30 years ago, and you will find only a handful of people anywhere who would make them by hand. (Why? because a batch of the dough, about the size of a small cabbage can make 100 dozen cookies. I’ve kept track several years in a row, so I know my estimate is fairly accurate.) Those cookies are something unique- spicy crisp, thin as a leaf, melts on the tongue and it always surprises people who have never seen them, heard of them nor tasted them before.

We lived in farm country for many years, in the US and in Canada- that’s where you will find some people who know how to cook. We got to pick wild food (milk weed pods, cat-tail shoots, crayfish, wild strawberries -tiny and potent- various kind of field greens. We did subsistence gathering (I’m sure my sister and brother probably didn’t appreciate those expeditions at all- I don’t know, though). I think we all liked picking strawberries, even though it was extremely labor intensive for a 7 y.o, an 11 y.o. and a 16 y.o.- quiet and delicious work, except for when the trains blew through the middle of of the village a few times a day. We also used to pick huge quantities of Saskatoon berries during the years we lived in Alberta- kind of like a blueberry, but a distinct fruit all by itself.

In my 20s a good friend (in Northfield Minnesota), Gary, was an early proponent and activist for community gardens. And we grew up with gardens, and all our friends out in the rural areas… you better believe they had gardens. And orchards, and maple sugaring. Not for sale- it was just the stuff their families grew or made and used (or gave away) for the whole year.  About 15 years ago, I designed an Indigenous heritage foods conservation program, which is still operating here in the Twin Cities, and it’s young Native people who are working with Elders on growing the gardens.  Their website can be accessed through:  http://dreamofwildhealth.org/     Heritage seeds stocks insure bio-diversity, revitalize cultures and conserve the intangible assets of Native people.

When I grew up  in Alaska I also ate Bush food. I’m Yupik, Eskimo (yes you can say Eskimo, because we’re not Inuit speakers). And I have two families of amazing people, one biological, one adoptive, one brown, one white.  I spoke Yupik until I was about age 4, they tell me – I mean, I grew up bi-lingual.  That’s probably more accurate. The village where I was born is called Mamerterilluq, which means ‘The place where food is cached’ or sometimes, ‘Smokehouse’. I know I ate lots of salmon and moose (note: not salmon mousse), fresh tundra berries folded into akutaq, often referred to as Eskimo Ice Cream, about which more later. I’ve also had walrus and seal since spending time back in Alaska. Frozen dried whitefish with seal oil- it’s very good with Pilot Bread (a kind of dry, big cracker) and Tundra Tea- the better known name is Labrador Tea. Here in Minnesota the Ojibwe people call it Swamp Tea, and it’s just as good as at home, although the leaves seem to be smaller than Alaska’s.

It may take me a while to get the hang of this site, but I think a blog is a good way of sharing with other people who are interested in food. Now I just have to figure out how to get the pictures to stick where they’re supposed to stick.  In the meantime, they’re parked in big stacks here on the front page until I give them their own entries.  I hope you like the blog.

all images and content (c) 2012 Richard LaFortune