Featuring walks and thoughts as I explore my new home

Patricia Wells’ Trattoria: Recipe #3–Risotto with Tomatoes and Parmesan (Risotto alla Cardinale)

The next Trattoria recipe that I tried—Risotto alla Cardinale—is apparently named for the vivid red color of a Catholic cardinal’s robes. I liked to think instead of the bright crimson birds that flitted in the forsythia bushes during the snowy Hudson Valley winters of my childhood: a beautiful, shocking red against the surrounding dull-white and gray.

I’ve loved risotto since…well, since forever, really, because I can’t recall a time I didn’t love it. The steaming hot, deeply flavorful grains—whether enhanced with saffron, butter, a particular vegetable or a bit of perfectly seasoned seafood—are the stuff of my food dreams: simple, comforting, served in a single bowl. Yes, there’s the preparation: 20 minutes of slaving over a hot stove while stirring constantly with an aching arm, but it’s totally worth it.

Patricia Wells’ version with tomatoes and parmesan cheese caught my eye a few weeks ago when I needed to make something for a Monday dinner. The recipe looked promising and fairly straightforward…two good things on a time-pressed school night.

To start, I stirred together 2 cups of veggie broth with 1 cup of the leftover tomato sauce I’d recently made from Trattoria. Once the brew was barely simmering, I pulled out pot #2, put it on a medium-flame burner, and tossed in 1 tablespoon of butter, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, ½ minced shallot, 2 bay leaves and some salt. This I cooked for a few minutes until the shallot bits gleamed and were mostly translucent.

Next, I poured in 1 cup of Arborio rice and stir, stir, stirred with my favorite wooden spoon (Sur La Table, 2007 collection) until everything glistened. Wells points out that this is a key step, as “The heat and fat will help separate the grains of rice, ensuring a creamy consistency in the end.” Bravo to that.

Once the rice was just about translucent, I slopped in a ladleful of the simmering tomato broth, and stirred mightily as those rice grains absorbed the liquid, a task they performed with impressive speed and efficiency. Into the pot went another ladle of broth, followed by more furious stirring, until all of that liquid had disappeared as well.

At some point, I pulled my face back from the steam, uncurled my cramped fingers from the spoon and grabbed a fork to taste the rice. It was just about done—tender but still a little too chewy-tacky for my taste. I dumped in the remaining liquid and marveled as I always do at this point in the recipe at risotto’s incredible capacity for absorption. Why hasn’t this magical element been exploited? Couldn’t they make compostable paper towels out of this stuff?

It took about 20 minutes, as usual, for the risotto to achieve the “creamy porridge-like consistency” that Wells describes and all Italian cooks strive for. Thrilled, I pulled the saucepan from the heat and stirred in another tablespoon of butter, along with ¼ cup of grated Parmesan. The risotto smelled tomato-sweet and buttery rich, so it was hard to clamp the lid on the pot for it to “stand” for a final few minutes as the flavors did their little blending dance.

I found my fork and gave the finished dish another taste—it was perfect. Out came the bay leaf and into two bowls went piles of the rice; I also put a dollop on a plate for Roxy.

The results: So, so good!

Tomato-creamy and rich!

Hot and fortifying!

And…a bit like Chef Boyardee!

Yeah, it’s kinda true. There was something deliciously addictive and spoon-lickingly wonderful about the risotto—the chunks of tomato from the homemade sauce aside—that made me think of Americanized Italian junk food. Was it the smooth texture and consistent taste? The obvious presence of butter? I suspect so. The risotto definitely wasn’t sweet, but there was no mistaking this resemblance that was hard to shake once the idea popped into my head.

Jon ate his bowlful right up, but in a thoughtful, almost clinical way that made me wonder if he was having similar flashbacks. Rox ate a single grain and pronounced it “Not what I’m feeling like” so there was no big win there.

I think you could avoid this unfortunate 1970s canned pasta association by adding some chopped fresh herbs—or maybe some wild mushrooms—to the recipe. I’ll make it again, once my arm has recovered, and see what I come up with.


  1. Judy D

    THIS IS YOUR MOTHER SPEAKING! When, WHEN did you ever have pasta from a can when you were growing up? Not at our house! Nonetheless, I loved your description of the process. Fun!

    Love, Mom

    • Erin

      Hi Mom [sheepish grin]… I should never have implied that the Chef Boyardee was consumed on our premises. Perhaps at a friend’s house? During college? Hanging head, E

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