There are very few people who don’t love Italian food. From pizza to spaghetti, there is just something homey and comforting about Italian food.

The first “Italian” dish I remember was Chef Boyardee spaghetti. My family went grocery shopping every Friday evening and our fast food was Chef Boyardee spaghetti made with ground beef, onions and green peppers.

I thought pizza and this spaghetti were the that was the height of Italian food until my grandfather brought  one of his Italian hunting buddies to visit us and, learning that my favorite dish was spaghetti, the man said he would make spaghetti. This was serious stuff. He’d brought a little machine with him and made spaghetti, not the hard sticks out of the box, but soft, pliant threads. He made tomato sauce that seemed to take all day to make and involved buying provisions — tomato paste, fresh garlic and herbs, fresh tomatoes, a slab of real Parmesan cheese — in shops in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

He served this spaghetti with big fat meatballs, a mixture of beef, bread crumbs, Parmesan and herbs. At eight, I liked Chef Boyardee better, but I’ve progressed.

Living in Lebanon in the early 1970s — true, on the opposite side of the Mediterranean from Italy but still full of plenty of Italians and Italian restaurants — I was introduced to one of my favorite Italian dishes — risotto, a smooth and creamy rice dish, made with various vegetables, meat, seafood, and even fruit, in it. It was served with Osso Bucco, also a new dish for me, in some restaurant by the sea. Who knew that rice, a bone and some marrow could taste so good!

Since then, especially in the spring when the mint is coming into leaf and fresh peas are available, I make risotto at least once every couple of weeks, altering it with whatever fresh vegetables have shown up in the market or in my kitchen garden.

The one thing you must use in this recipe is the right rice: Arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano, short-grained rice with high starch content that makes for a creamy dish with rice that is separate and retains a firm core.

What you’ll need:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large garlic clove, halved
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 1 1/2 cups arborio rice
  • 4 1/2 cups of warm chicken stock
  • 3 cups fresh or frozen baby peas
  • ¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup finely shredded mint leaves
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat chicken stock so that it is warm. Shuck skins from fresh peas and cook until just tender. Rinse and set aside. Thaw frozen peas.

Put oil into a large pot, add garlic, cover and cook over low heat for about three minutes, or until softened. Do not brown garlic.

Add the rice and stir for about two minutes or until the rice turns from white to translucent.

Add one cup of the chicken stock and cook, stirring constantly, until most of the liquid is gone. Continue adding the stock, a cup at a time, stirring until the stock is absorbed. After you’ve used all the stock, continue cooking and stirring until the rice is tender but still has a crunch at its center, about15 to 20 minutes. The rice will look creamy.

Add the peas and cook just until heated through. Stir in the cheese and mint. Serve immediately.

Till next time.

Melkam Megeb. Bon appetit. Buen provecho. Mànmàn chī! Guten Appetit! Dober tek! Selamat makan! Nush olsun! Svādiṣṭ khānā