Food, Lifestyle

Absorbing the wisdom of the great chefs

Pictured is lobster risotto. See two recipes below.


Perhaps you owe a friend or relative a phone call. It could last about 15 minutes or so – you’re in no hurry. You could give some loving attention to a good risotto while you chat, stirring the pot as you catch up on the news.  No, it does not take hours, but it takes a little patience, and is well worth it.  

When Julia Child’s cookbooks first came out, she was criticized for spending too much time teaching cooking techniques in her recipes.  Her co-author, Simone Beck, was one of her fiercest critics – she thought Julia was explaining techniques that everyone already knew. But Beck was French, and Julia was introducing French cooking to Americans. Besides, Julia had only become serious about cooking in her 40s, so she could relate to having to learn everything.

In spite of their disagreements, they were good friends, and Simone and her husband gave a piece of land on her own property to Child, so that she and her husband could build a French home of their dreams. Some of the most interesting stories I have read about that important culinary period took place at that house in Provence, which was to remain the Childs’ property for as long as they lived.  After Paul died, Julia lost interest in the place, but during their lives it was where they entertained food royalty – James Beard, M. F. Fisher and so many others.

You need only to read a few of the recipes from any of Julia’s books to understand her devotion and passion.  She truly wanted to teach the home cook how to create wonderful meals and to enjoy the process.

Jamie Oliver was a lot younger than Julia when he started to make a name for himself. He instinctively knew in his early 20s what needed to be taught and he presents it beautifully with his down-to-earth style. He was trained by two women, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray of the River Cafe in London, one of the best restaurants on the planet. Jamie gained a lot of attention a few years ago when he challenged American school cafeterias to create healthier foods for kids. His books and TV shows are among my favorites.   

“Try to acquire a sturdy, thick-bottomed pan, preferably as high as it is wide. The thick bottom allows for a nice equal heat and the high sides will help prevent the moisture from evaporating too quickly,” Oliver said about making risotto.  

My Noni had a heavy black iron pan, a big one for her family of 10 kids. “It needs to be,” she would say if you inquired about why she had such a huge pan, or about nearly anything else.  I don’t use the black iron pan because I have a favorite copper pan with a stainless lining and a cover and I use it for 75 percent of my cooking:  tomato and white sauces, boiling and/or steaming vegetables, stews, poaching pears or peaches or any stoned fruit, cooking artichokes … the list is endless.

It was one of the first pans I bought for my restaurant, the little storefront where we served about 30 people. It is still perfect and the perfect dimension, mine is about four inches high and about 10 inches wide. I haven’t polished it since my mother passed away. One of the chores she loved when she came to visit was polishing that pan and my copper kettle.

Arborio rice gives the best results for risotto. That and a homemade vegetable, beef or chicken broth is all you need. Make more than you need of the risotto; with the extra you can make arancina – rice balls stuffed with mozzarella or ground beef previously sauteed with tomato and fresh herbs.  

On my first visit to Sicily many years ago, I experienced street food; the rice balls were popular with venders and they were delicious. They freeze well and, with a salad and a little tomato sauce on the side, they are great for a snack or big meal. Any leftovers of shellfish, vegetables, meat, herbs, cooked beans, ricotta and mascarpone can be incorporated into a risotto.

I like a nice platter of antipasti as a first course with fresh marinated veggies, olives, hard-boiled eggs and a sprinkle of fresh herbs like basil, cilantro, parsley and mint.

A good pan like mine is an investment. It cooks nicely, with even heat and it can go from stovetop or oven to table.

Pick up any of Oliver’s books and you will quickly learn how to create simple and delicious meals in very little time. And if you’d like to slip into that farmhouse kitchen with Julia and her culinary friends, pick up the wonderful “The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food,” by Judith Jones, the legendary editor. It is an absolutely charming memoir with recipes by the woman who played a seminal role in shaping the American food revolution.

Basic Risotto  

In a pan, heat to simmer 1 quart of stock, veggie, chicken or beef.  

Sweat 1 carrot, 2 ribs of celery, including the leaves, and 1 medium onion roughly chopped, in 1 tablespoon each of olive oil and butter, for about 3 minutes.

 Add 3 cloves of chopped garlic and saute for a few minutes, stirring all the while.

 Add about 1 pound of arborio rice, a sprig of fresh thyme and raise the heat, stirring to coat the rice, moving the rice for a few minutes.

 Add 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 cup of white wine, vermouth or Marsala.  

Once the rice absorbs the wine, add 1 cup of broth, which you have heated.

Repeat. Allow each cup to be absorbed into the rice before you add the next cup, stirring all the while until the rice is soft but has a little bite to it.  

Remove from the heat and add 5 tablespoons of butter and 1/4 cup of Pecorino Romano and any prepared ingredients, like vegetables, seafood, beans, etc.

Close your eyes and imagine you are in Milano.

Buon appetito!

Lobster Risotto     

Bring 1 1/2 quart of water to a boil with 1 teaspoon of salt, half of an onion, a sprig of thyme and a few sprigs of flat leaf parsley.

Add a 1 1/2 pound lobster, putting it head-first into the boiling water; cover the pot to prevent  escape and close the blinds so you won’t be noticed by crustacean rights activists.

Incidentally, my pot, as mentioned above, is perfect for this as it is for so many of my preparations.  

After the water comes back to a boil, time the cooking – the lobster should take about 10  minutes.  

Remove it from the pan with tongs. Save the water.  

After the lobster cools, remove the meat and cut it up with a kitchen shears into bite-size pieces.  Save the tomalley as well.  

Place the lobster shells back into the water and simmer for 30 minutes or more. Strain and use this “broth” for the risotto. You can add more vegetable broth if needed.

At serving time, gently fold the meat and the tomalley into the heated risotto with a few tablespoons of broth and butter to moisten.

Pass grated cheese. Close your eyes and imagine you are in Maine, on the coast, on a beautiful spring day.

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