Spring vegetables seem to take aeons to reach picking point in our orto, but when they get going, there’s no stopping them. The problem becomes finding uses for them. The first fresh peas are such a fantastically springy green colour and taste so sweet. But occasionally they appear even before you’ve stopped thinking of warming dishes and moved on to cooling summery ones. This simple dish – Venetian in origin – combines spring flavours with a comfort-food texture.
Risi e bisi (rice and peas) is exactly what it says on the tin. Rice. And peas. It’s best with peas just picked from the plant and removed straight from their pods. But failing that, you could always try with frozen ones. It’s a risotto, basically, although I like to leave it slightly more liquid than the average risotto.
Rice – 300 g
Peas – 1 kg fresh; 300 g shelled weight or frozen
Onion – 1 large
Garlic – 1 large clove
Vegetable stock – 500 ml
Parmesan – 6 heaped tbsp grated
Shell the peas. Put a kettle of water on to boil. Chop the onion and garlic very finely. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan and sweat the onions and garlic gently over a low heat until the onion turns transparent. Now add the stock and the peas, and heat them slowly until the stock is just bubbling. (If you’re using frozen peas, it’s best to add them later, when the rice is just beginning to soften; if you start them cooking at this point, they’ll probably have turned to mush by the time the rice is ready.)
Add the rice, which should be round-grained risotto rice – carnaroli is best.
The trick now is to keep the ingredients bubbling very gently, uncovered, over a low-to-medium heat, stirring only occasionally and very gently so as not to damage the peas. At the same time, however, you need to prevent the rice from drying out and/or sticking to the bottom of the pan. It should be a semi-liquid mass at all times.
Almost immediately you’ll need to start topping the rice up with more boiling water to keep it cooking. In the end, depending on your rice, you may use around a litre of water. As the mixture in the pan begins to look less liquid, pour the water in 250 ml lots, then stir it in very gingerly.
When the rice is cooked but not too soft, and the amount of liquid left in the pan makes the rice look only just compact enough to eat with a fork, the dish is ready. Fold in the grated parmesan, add lots of black pepper and leave the pan to stand for a few minutes to make sure the melted cheese is fully absorbed into the creamy liquid. Serve with more grated parmesan to taste.
© Anne Hanley, 2011