On Christmas Eve, long ago, I navigated the tunnel-like streets of Florence to my apartment on a curvy hill across the river. I walked through the cobblestones and stone walled streets that reflected the cold off their surfaces and into any living thing hurrying through them.
It was a long walk, and after standing outside all day hawking leather bags in the big outdoor tourist market, I was cold and exhausted, and I felt a creep of rare homesickness tentatively knocking at the door of my mind. After celebrating Thanksgiving far away from home in a seemingly turkeyless country, I was more prepared to celebrate Christmas differently.
Friends were coming. Friends in the same situation as I, far from home and family. Market friends, pizza makers, bricklayers, Lebanese, Tunisians, Egyptians, Sicilians and Calabrese from Southern Italy.
All outsiders, some permanent immigrants, some temporary, all warming my apartment, filling it with an unspoken, shared an understanding of longing but also filling it with a simple love for that very moment. Love for the warmth, for friends, and for a different Christmas that superseded the lack of a tree, family, or money for a feast.
We cooked risotto that night. A meal normally too simple for a holiday feast but no one seemed to care. It was warm and creamy, and a salve for our tired and cold bones and it cost almost nothing to make for a lot of people.
The bowls of steamy, parmesan infused Arborio soothed our stomachs, vino made our eyes twinkle, and a crusty olive pane comforted us as if we were at home. At the end of the meal, we sipped Amaro and peeled arance right out of the big bowl in the center of the table. It was a meal of contrasting flavors, colors, and comforting simplicity.
Traditionally you wouldn’t expect a cook from Southern Italy to teach you how to make risotto because it is a strictly Northern Italian food. There are rules about the North and South in Italy. But my friend Roberto was a veteran of Florentine kitchens and could cook as well as any Northern cook.
He cooked on Christmas Eve, and I helped. He taught me about risotto patience and about continually stirring it in a clockwise direction. If you stir counterclockwise or stop stirring, you would incur some ancient curse having to do with husbands not yet found and babies not yet born. Half way through the risotto, he shouted to make me understand “non ci sono scorciatoie di cucina italiana!!!” There are no shortcuts in Italian food!! Especially not with risotto.
I believe risotto is one of the recipes that every cook needs to know. The technique becomes easier with practice, and the simplicity of just a few ingredients that turn into a creamy, soothing texture make this a perfect weeknight dish. Don’t limit it to the weeknights though, sometimes risotto is just the perfect thing for an unexpected holiday feast.