Baby Artichoke, Radicchio Trevisano, Pea & Mint Risotto
As most Italians and definitely all Sicilians know- and yes, yes, lots of you good people out there too... bitter tasting foods are good for you! They lower your blood-pressure, are good for your heart and circulation... and if you have educated taste-buds... they are also very delicious!
Of course, radicchio is one of those classic "love it or hate it" kinds of vegetable/ salad "greens". And especially so when fried or grilled... that is, if it is not combined properly with other ingredients it is being served-up with. With artichokes, it is a similar thing- people tend to like the tender artichoke hearts but are puzzled by the leaves and only seem to enjoy them if they dip them into some concoction that overpowers their own flavor. Ugh. Something I have never understood, these dips for artichoke! But I digress... this evening I had the little, baby ones anyway and I wanted to do something special with them and to make the very most of their wonderful, if somewhat bitter flavor. Something a little bit like this...
Artichokes, mint and peas are very, very good friends- a classic combination that simply fits together like a hand in a velvet glove. Harmony. And that is the whole secret of good cooking- balancing the flavors and or textures carefully to create a harmonious result. Which is of course easier said than done!
In any case, I began with the artichokes, which I usually steam, but in this case, I wanted to boil them and to use the broth to make the risotto with. So I prepared them for cooking in the usual manner- cutting away the top third of the leaves, pulling off the tough, outer leaves, peeling the the stalk down a little and then cutting them in half so that I could cut away the "choke" in the centre. These baby artichokes were so tender that there was hardly any there, but still, those fine little fibers WILL choke you if you accidentally leave any in there... so don't! A couple of small cuts and a little scoop-out is all that it takes. And then into some lightly salted water they went for 20 minutes or so.
After 20 minutes, the artichokes were tender. You don't want to over-cook them or they will literally fall apart when you try to fry them- so out of the broth they came- and what an awesome green color that broth had become! I had only lightly salted the water for boiling the artichokes- the reason being that I now added a little vegetable stock cube to it for a little depth of flavor and this of course was also seasoned. Later I would be adding Parmesan cheese... you get the picture!
So now I was ready to begin the risotto, and did this by finely chopping a small onion, adding the rice and a pat of butter, and frying it until the oil was nicely coated and the onion was beginning to turn transparent. Once that had happened, I deglazed the saucepan with a splash of white wine, added some frozen peas, a little pepper and the broth, just one ladle at a time, as I stirred it in, in the traditional manner. Yes, you need to keep an eye on it- but it is not that time-consuming that you can't be busy preparing the artichokes and radicchio- so that is what I did in the meantime.
The artichokes went into a frying pan with just a little olive oil. They were still moist and had quite a bit of water lurking within the folds of all those leaves, which of course seeped out and mingled with the oil, creating a nice glaze. I added a couple of slices of garlic to perfume the artichokes slightly, seasoned with salt and pepper, but otherwise let them just sit and sizzle until they became nicely golden brown. Easy.
The radicchio was prepared in the same way- rinsed off, shook dry, then into the pan it went, simply next to the artichokes and also with a light sprinkle of olive oil, some salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. Once it began to brown, I added a splash of water and took them away from the heat. The water let the sugar dissolve and coat the radicchio better, and I popped both the artichokes and the radicchio in the oven to stay warm whilst I finished the risotto.
As soon as the rice was al-dente, I added a good pinch of finely chopped parsley and mint, and about a quarter of the radicchio, also finely chopped. I added a little grated nutmeg and a pat of butter to the risotto and worked-in all of the new ingredients, making the rice suddenly creamy and filled with new flavors to compliment and enhance the artichoke flavor. This, together with the sweetness of the peas was what made it so terrific!
I served up the risotto into a dish and then set-in the artichoke hearts decoratively. I took the radicchio out of the pan and cut the ends off the stalk, then spread them out between the artichokes- the bitterest part of the radicchio is the end of the stalk- so that was one problem less right there! A nice sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, some freshly ground pepper and a last hint of nutmeg and a truly exquisite dish was ready to be served! And you will not believe how wonderfully the bitterness is balanced when you come to eat it, with the salty Parmesan, the fresh mint and the sweet peas- it is truly terrific! try it- you'll like it!