Will Travel for Food

MUSSEL RISOTTO WITH PARSLEY PURÉE

By Sanford D’Amato, Photos by Dominic Perri

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I’m keeping my foot to the floor so I don’t lose the firefly-sized tail lights in front of me. It’s almost a losing battle as the matchbox Fiat rental Angie and I are in seems to be powered by a wind up rubber band. The rain is pummeling the windshield and the only thing I’m sure about is that there is a large crevasse on either side of the road.

It’s 1985 and my wife, Angie, and I are driving through Europe for the first time. From our starting point in Brussels until our last day in Paris, there was one daily ritual we could count on—we would be lost for part of the day.

This day, it was the second largest city in Italy: Milan. We started out from a small pensione called Hotel Asnigo situated in the hills overlooking Lake Como. The older proprietor, Luigi, lent us his personal map—which, judging from the condition of the paper, must have been a christening gift—to direct us the 40-some miles to Milan from Cernobbio.

We arrived in Milan a few hours before our dinner reservation at 8pm. Being that it was sunny and light out, we didn’t really need the map as the route was very well posted with “Milano” directing signs every few miles.

We went to a traditional Milanese restaurant, and we put ourselves in the hands of the waiter. He brought us a selection from the copious antipasto table that we had to maneuver around as we were seated. The plate contained all pristine grilled and roasted vegetables, some sweet and sour, stuffed or crusted, flanked by paper-thin regional cured meats and salamis.

For the entrée, it was Piccata of Chicken and Veal Cotaletta. All was delicious, but the star of the dinner arrived between the antipasto and entrée. This was usually the position reserved for pasta in Italy, but we were in the north, which means rice, and the waiter brought two of the special Seafood Risottos. This was my first taste of risotto and it immediately changed the way I thought about the white grain. Growing up, we were a Minute Rice family, and I felt that the bland white kernels just took up valuable real estate on my plate that could have been put to better use. This rice took more than a minute. It was cooked all’onda, which loosely translates to wavy. When you tap the rim of the dish, the creamy rice slightly undulates like ocean waves with the pristine chunks of seafood looking like little bouncing buoys. It was absolutely luscious, with each perfectly cooked kernel of rice exploding with briny crustacean goodness.

We walked out of the restaurant after dinner, and the perfect night had turned into an impromptu gale. We ran to the car and unfolded the map, which quickly deteriorated into four separate pieces. Using our best internal GPS, we tried to retrace our way back to the Autostrada (highway), but soon found ourselves following the only tail lights around down a dark and otherwise deserted road. We knew we were in big trouble when the tail lights became headlights that started to beam down on us, eventually swiping right past us on the narrow road. That’s when we figured out we might be following another lost traveler.

After an hour of aimlessly driving, we miraculously ran into the Autostrada ramp flanked by a minute arrow sign pointing toward Cernobbio. Saved again from self-destruction.

Today’s risotto is inspired by that night of highs and lows. I suggest using short-grain Carnaroli or Nano Vialone rice or the easier to procure Arborio for this dish. Be sure and keep it fluid (but not watery) and please don’t overcook the rice. After your first taste, you’ll agree this is a dish worth driving for.

MUSSEL RISOTTO WITH PARSLEY PURÉE

Serves 4 as an appetizer

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, peeled and diced fine; need ½ cup

1 cup Carnaroli rice

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

½ teaspoon hot pepper flakes

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

1 cup dry sherry, heated

2–2¼ cups no-salt vegetable stock, heated

24 cleaned mussels, placed in a covered pot with ¼ cup dry white wine

½ cup packed (½ ounce) cleaned fresh Italian parsley leaves, puréed with ½ cup no-salt vegetable stock

2 tablespoons salted butter

Fresh Italian parsley sprigs for garnish

Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Place a saucepan over medium heat. Add oil, then add onion, and cook about 3–4 minutes, until opaque. Add rice and, with a wooden spoon, continually stir to lightly toast, about 3 minutes.

Add garlic, pepper flakes, bay leaves, and thyme and stir for 30 seconds. Add hot sherry, continue stirring, add salt and pepper, and cook until rice starts to absorb sherry.

Start adding the stock by small ladles, just enough to keep the rice liquid and continually absorbing—keep stirring so rice does not stick.

While rice is cooking, place mussel pot over medium heat and steam mussels open—should take 2–3 minutes. Remove pan from heat as soon as the mussels open. Keep pan covered.

Add all liquid from mussels as the next addition of liquid to the risotto. Taste rice and continue adding stock until rice is just cooked, but still al dente. At this point, rice should be creamy and fluid, but not watery.

Finish rice by stirring in butter and parsley purée, season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately in 4 hot bowls. Garnish with warm mussels and parsley sprigs on top.