May 20, 2010, 11:39AM

Letters to Juliet and the perfect risotto

Ah, the glory of Tuscany.

My roommate and I went to see Letters to Juliet over the weekend. I still don't fully understand how that happened. We'd just been window-shopping at the mall and then we gorged on Thai food and in the curry afterglow it seemed like a good idea to see a romantic comedy. I have a soft spot for romantic comedies, but it's a hard genre to do well. The best have screwball plots worthy of Preston Sturges, and stars that banter smartly and smolder, like Hepburn and Tracy. Letters to Juliet was a study in negative chemistry and lazy writing.

The premise was mind-bendingly ridiculous. There was almost no dialogue between the lead actor and actress. Throw in a few tortured misunderstandings and suddenly he's climbing up a trellis to where she's standing on a balcony to declare his love. But there was a part in the first third of the movie that required such a suspension of disbelief I'm still sputtering about it. In the beginning, Amanda Seyfried is dating the utterly hot Gabriel Garcia Bernal. His character is about to open an Italian restaurant in New York, and so they're going on a three week vacation to Verona, partly as a pre-wedding getaway, partly so he can meet the farmers who will be supplying his food. Cue montage of him driving her through gorgeous Northern Italian scenery to an artisan cheesemaker's picturesque, dustily lit barn and hand-feeding her slices of cheese, to a vintner's to sip wine in the Tuscan sun by a hill full of grape arbors. He wants to take her truffle hunting and she pitches a fit because he was sucking all the romance out of their vacation by working too much. He left her, sadly, to attend a wine auction in Livorno and she was free to meet a man who emotes only by squinting. Who on earth wrote this character, and why does he or she hate food so much?

The movie had me brooding about Northern Italian food for the next few days, risotto in particular. Milanese risotto, made with saffron and bone marrow, is a cousin of Spanish Paella, and it is thought that risotto evolved into its present form during the two centuries of Spanish rule in Milan, which started in the mid-16th century.

Risotto is versatile and easy to make. In many restaurants it's treated as a side dish but it makes a splendid main course, and is one of my go-to dishes for easy entertaining. It's a great for showing off fresh vegetables as they come in season. For those panicky about cooking without a recipe, risotto is a perfect dish to learn to cook on the fly. First, follow a few recipes so you get the hang of it, and then use your imagination. Any fish, meat, vegetable or herb goes well with it.

The basic technique is this: you want to cook the rice very slowly and force as much flavor into it as possible. Take a stock: meat, fish or vegetable, and put it in a sauce pan on low. Sauté onions, carrots, garlic, or leeks or whatever you care to until tender in some kind of fat: butter, olive oil or bacon grease. Put the rice in and toss with the fat and vegetables until coated and the grains begin to turn translucent, which is about a minute. Add wine at this point if you're using it, and allow it to absorb. Then add a cup or two of hot stock, bring to a simmer, and stir the rice while it absorbs. Add stock in small quantities until the rice is done, which generally takes 20 minutes to a half hour. When the rice is almost done, finish it off with Parmesan cheese and some cream.

My personal favorite date night dinner is fried brown butter and sage risotto cakes with a fresh-from-the-garden salad. I make the risotto by first carefully browning butter in a large shallow pan or skillet, and when it's the color of walnut I add shallots and a handful of sage. I put a glug of wine in after the rice toasts, and cook it with chicken stock simmered with an old Parmesan rind. I finish the risotto with Gruyere instead of Parmesan, and stir in some finely chopped crisped bacon or prosciutto. Then I chill it overnight. The next day I scoop out 1/3-cup balls of it, stuff it with soft goat cheese, dredge in flour or panko crumbs, and fry in a half-inch of oil. Garnish with fried sage leaves and drizzle with more browned butter. It's a meal to fall in love over.


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