Creamy Radicchio Risotto with Mascarpone (or Not – Vegetarian & Vegan versions)

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When I was a kid, I wanted to be an adventurer.
It started with me reading way too many books, and actually believing that there could be some truth in all those stories. I used to pull out my personal notebook on all occasions to jot down ideas and random thoughts, to the point of being almost bullied at school for being a little too peculiar. I could not wait to be old enough to see all the things I could see and discover foods and see people and crowds and music and noises. Though I probably couldn’t have sailed on a pirate ship, I still had a whole world to visit.

So on I went: I boarded my first plane at 16 and was hungry for exploring the world ever since.  Still, as I traveled and explored the world, I realized that the adventures I was after mostly lied in the stories. When I realized that one of the parts of the experience was the part where I could tell about it – via photos and written stories – I felt my life changing.
Being an adventurer, I realized later, meant to me that I wanted to tell – and listen to – stories.

Creamy Radicchio Risotto with Mascarpone (or Not - Vegetarian & Vegan versions) | Hortus Natural CookingCreamy Radicchio Risotto with Mascarpone (or Not - Vegetarian & Vegan versions) | Hortus Natural CookingCreamy Radicchio Risotto with Mascarpone (or Not - Vegetarian & Vegan versions) | Hortus Natural Cooking

There is so much I didn’t share on the blog: all my travels to Europe, my US experiences prior to this blog, my living in a 30m apartment with two other people and a dog and all the things that happened and were really difficult and I am glad they happened.
If adventuring is experiencing and telling things and stories that excite you, now that I’m past 25 I understand how things that are exciting to us shift, and change, and ebb and flow, and sceneries broaden and narrow.

I understand that the world is vast and the more of it you see the more it seems to broaden. And, when your world broadens, you inevitably start picking out your favorite spots – those parts and places of you that feel as cozy as a soft armchair and a cup of tea. If life were a big room, you’d still have a favorite chair, a favorite corner, a favorite window. Therefore no matter how big the room is: it will always be as big as your favorite spot.
After all, what is being adventurers, if not staying constantly surprised with life, independently of the size you choose your world to be?

As my favorite spots are taking shape, one is among the dearest to my heart (aside one very special place by the sea, but that is another story): that corner on the northeast of Italy, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a beautiful land of mountains and sea and rivers and vineyards, all grouped in a  relatively tiny region. Within this place, one of my favorite spots is a town called Faedis and, with this tiny town made of stone houses, my favorite light shines through a house that once belonged to a lady called Ophelia, of which I already talked in this post.
I like to think that life always brings us to where our karma left a trace, like thieves back on the crime scene.
We cooked and shot one of my favorite recipes: risotto with Radicchio Tardivo di Treviso – a recipe that is more of the Veneto side, but the radicchio which grows so plentiful here tempted us to try it out all the same.

To me, exploring Ophelia’s house for the first time was definitely quite the adventure. On those crackling, still beautiful wooden floors, I wandered through the ghosts left from a time past and re-live a different life every time I go through that door.
Even though some of us are probably meant to stick to our favorite chair and peacefully watch all the other people sit on the others.

Creamy Radicchio Risotto with Mascarpone (or Not - Vegetarian & Vegan versions) | Hortus Natural CookingCreamy Radicchio Risotto with Mascarpone (or Not - Vegetarian & Vegan versions) | Hortus Natural CookingCreamy Radicchio Risotto with Mascarpone (or Not - Vegetarian & Vegan versions) | Hortus Natural CookingCreamy Radicchio Risotto with Mascarpone (or Not - Vegetarian & Vegan versions) | Hortus Natural Cooking

This risotto is light enough to be a perfect post-holiday meal – especially if you skip the mascarpone, and it’s a silly easy recipe with a short ingredient list. It is surprisingly tasty for a risotto that lacks both butter and cheese – the base consists of only olive oil and shallot. The mascarpone gives it a nice roundness, but I find by no means necessary. I added instructions for both the vegan and lighter version and the more traditional one: choose your risotto adventure yourself.

NOTE: if you cannot find radicchio, try this same recipe with nettles, chicory greens, or even cabbage or rapini or more simply spinach. Any leafy green that tastes good cooked will work in this recipe.

5.0 from 1 reviews
Creamy Radicchio Risotto with Mascarpone (or Not)
Cuisine: Italian
  • 2 heads radicchio 'tardivo di Treviso'
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 shallot
  • 150g risotto rice, such as Arborio or Carnaroli or Vialone Nano (my favorite kind)
  • Hot vegetable stock
  • Salt & pepper
  • 2 tablespoons Mascarpone cheese, or gorgonzola (skip or use cashew cream for a vegan version)
  • Some Grana to finish (skip if vegan)
  1. Cut one of the radicchio heads in 4 lengthwise, then finely chop the other head (get rid of the stem) and set aside. Add the radicchio cut lengthwise to a plate and cover with clingfilm. Microwave on high for about 2 minutes, until soft. Cut off most of the stem and toss them generously with olive oil.
  2. Heat a pan until quite hot and add the radicchio. Let it brown on all sides, until nicely cooked and until the tops are crispy. Set aside.
  3. Add the olive oil to a pot with sides about 4-5 inches (10 - 13 cm) tall. Add the shallot and turn on the heat to medium-low, and start sautéing. Add the finely chopped radicchio the pot after a minute. Add a little stock to help the vegetables cook.
  4. After a couple minutes, add the rice, and stir for a minute on high to toast it.Then, add about a cup of stock, and let the rice cook on medium-low until absorbed. Keep an eye on it, as you will need to add another cup of stock once the first cup is absorbed. Keep an eye on it constantly and shake the pot often, to avoid sticking.
  5. RIsotto usually cooks in between 15 and 18 minutes - check the box for cooking times. the rice should feel soft under your teeth but with still some bite. If the rice seems cooked but there seems to be too much liquid, turn the heat to high and let it evaporate, shaking the pan. Once ready, remove from the heat, add the cheeses if using and shake the pan several times, as if you were sautéing it in a pan.
  6. Serve immediately with the pan-fried radicchio and a tiny quenelle of mascarpone or creamy gorgonzola.
  7. NOTE: this is the simplest process, but this way the radicchio won't preserve its color. If you want to keep it bright and purple, you will need to blanch it in salted water, pot uncovered, and purée it, then add it when cooking is almost done. I like adding the radicchio at the beginning of cooking though - it's easier and very flavorful.

Creamy Radicchio Risotto with Mascarpone (or Not - Vegetarian & Vegan versions) | Hortus Natural Cooking

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Fennel Salad with Oranges, Toasted Almonds and Lemon Thyme (from Naturally Vegetarian)

You can get my book, where you can find many simple, Mediterranean, vegetarian and vegan recipes, by clicking here!

This is an ode to fennel, one of the most beautiful winter vegetables and, indeed, the most elegant. Fennel id the vegetable of this nostalgic time of mist hanging over the fields and veiling the sun, coating all the hair-thin fronds in pearly droplets and frosting the grass at 6 AM. Fennel is the offspring of this fall/winter mood, that finally seems to have stricken Italy after one of the warmest, driest Octobers since my birth.

Fennel Salad with Oranges, Toasted Almonds and Lemon ThymeFennel Salad with Oranges, Toasted Almonds and Lemon ThymeFennel Salad with Oranges, Toasted Almonds and Lemon Thyme (from Naturally Vegetarian)

I had this salad for the first time in the most interesting context: I was at a dinner organized in a theater, and they put tables instead of seats, and we ate as a mini-show went on to accompany each course. The show was absolutely beautiful (and so was the setting), but this salad is one of the things that hit me the most.

Fennel, orange and good extra virgin olive oil is a very Italian combo, and what better time to make this salad, now that new, freshly pressed, emerald green olive oil is out?
I added lemon thyme and szechuan pepper for a fancy kick, but you can skip both and use regular pepper instead. Olives are often added to this salad, and, if you’re not vegan, some pecorino shavings round this up beautifully.

To make it a full meal, add something like quinoa or any other form of protein that fits your diet – this salad goes well with pretty much anything (especially fatty fish if you’re not plant based).

Do you like fennel? What is your favorite recipe with it?

Printable recipe:

4.0 from 1 reviews
Fennel Salad with Oranges, Toasted Almonds and Lemon Thyme
Cuisine: Italian
  • 2 medium oranges (or, even better, blood oranges)
  • 3 medium fennel bulbs, thinly shaved
  • ¼ cup toasted almonds or other nuts
  • Fruity extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice or lemon juice
  • Salt to taste
  • Two short sprigs lemon thyme
  • Pinch Szechuan or regular pepper
  • Extras: your favorite olives, Pecorino shavings
  1. Peel the oranges with a paring knife so you can get rid of the white part as well. Cut them lenghtwise into thin wedges, or cut the oranges crosswise as to show the sections of the oranges, which look beautiful.
  2. Toss the shaved fennel and sliced oranges in a bowl with plenty of extra virgin olive oil, the lemon or orange juice, torn leaves from the lemon thyme, salt to taste and pepper.
  3. Serve the salad in individual bowls and sprinkle on top the toasted almonds or nuts, and olives and pecorino if using.


At Ophelia’s Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Girolle Mushroom Sauce


As you might know, my cookbook, Naturally Vegetarian, will be available on November 7th! and there is a chance for 10 of you who preorder it to win a beautiful print from the book!


The giveaway will run from today to November 3rd. To enter, preorder your copy on any of the websites where it is available, which you can find here.
then submit your preorder code via this form.
Hope you get it and love it!

We stepped on a sun-bathed mix of overgrown fresh herbs and flowers, standing strong against impending mid-October, and crispy reddish-golden leaves, surrendered to the season, as we approached the flaky wooden door. Marco spotted a few more mushrooms between the leaves and kneeled to pick them and add them to his basket, where black-to-brown-to-orange-to-yellow hues of mushrooms were snugly grouped together.
‘here’, said Eugenia as she turned the key into the door. ‘This is Ophelia’s home. It’s all dusty – watch your steps.’

At Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom SauceAt Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom SauceAt Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom Sauce

The chiaroscuro of lights in the corridor was dazzling. In these old homes, light filters in through the semi-closed windows and holes in the walls as if it was elbowing its way violently through, as chiaroscuro is a fight between the light crashing through obstacles that turn its path pitch black, and every centimeter of space becomes a ring for this sparring of cutting through space and blocking hits. It is a dance of celebration and mourning; of dawn and dusk, round every corner and every piece of furniture.
It is such a fitting mood for abandoned places and for abandoned hearts.
A dusty green table was sitting on a corner, topped by an old scale and flecks of dust. In the old kitchen, a stunning traditional Friulan brick and cast iron stove sat in a corner. Dark green wooden chairs were scattered all around the house – one still hosting a newspaper with tattered, yellowing pages, as if waiting for someone to return.
Ophelia’s ghost seemed to be there still, sitting next to the window on that azure floral cushion, hit by the early afternoon Fall sunlight.
‘Who’s Ophelia?’ I asked.
‘She was a cousin of ours,’ Eugenia replied. ‘This house has been empty since the seventies. It is falling to pieces, which is too bad. It is such a beautiful house.’
So I started wondering about all the chairs that are left empty, and about the feeling that these 100-year old buildings carry with them: presences can be felt. There are places that still hold souls within. Once you start visiting these buildings, you can clearly tell the difference between walking into a new apartment, or any abandoned building. They sit, like an elderly person left alone, dead without notice: they will always carry the nostalgia of those who took care of them and saw them grow old and weary.

At Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom SauceAt Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom SauceAt Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom SauceAt Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom Sauce

I did not ask what life Ophelia led, but I imagined it as I climbed the crackly wooden stairs and stepped on those still beautiful worn floorboards, and touched the light, tattered floral curtains, filtering the light through the dust.
I wondered wether she waited for someone, gazing out the window from her kitchen, where the stove was lit and warmed the room along with the sun rays. I wondered wether she had a lost boyfriend, in those mountains in Friuli where both wars were so ferocious, and she waited to hear footsteps on the crackling golden leaves, on the snow, on the grass, on burnt nettles.
I wondered wether she lay awake at night, thinking what she would cook on that stove, after gathering the wood to light it up, and wether her chairs would fill up, and with who. I wondered wether there was an empty chair she wished could have a host.
I wondered wether she braided her hair or she kept it short, and wether she tied it with flowers and fresh aromatics in the spring. Ophelia, the drowning damsel of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, princess of nothing but her own dreams.
I wondered who her footsteps could wake up in late evenings, when the house was cold and floorboards are too noisy when walked on, embers still faintly burn in the stove, and a can of fresh, unpasteurized cow’s milk sat outside in the cold, starry night. There are no lights in Faedis, tiny her village, except for those of her home.

But, most of all, I wondered what Ophelia cooked in that stove of hers. With butter and cheese that they made at home, and mushrooms they picked from their garden, and buckwheat and corn flour, what could her favorite dish be?
Could it be a soft, creamy polenta, topped with a fondue of latteria or malga cheese – a dish called suf in Friuli? Or could it be polenta with morchia – corn flour stir-fried in butter? Could it be cjalsons – ravioli stuffed with herbs and cheese and dressed with butter and cinnamon? Or foraged mountain herbs, like nettles, silene, mint and mallow, cooked in a frittata from her hens?

As I looked out the windows and into the stove, I imagined all these things.
‘What if someone like Ophelia added mushrooms to polenta gnocchi?’ I asked Marco, who was teaching me so much about Friuli cuisine.
‘Well, I’d say she either went out and foraged some or that she was quite wealthy,’ he laughed. ‘They’re in season now, but they aren’t an everyday occurrence.’

At Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom SauceAt Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom SauceAt Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom SauceAt Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom SauceAt Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom Sauce

When we exited the house we all hiccuped back to reality. It is what happens when you exit places with souls trapped within: you wonder wether you have really been inside, and wether the past ten minutes really happen at all. Then you look back at the closed door and wonder wether someone actually whispered all those thoughts in your ears or if it was all a product of your imagination.
When we got back to Eugenia’s house, there were three grandmas in aprons making butter. Their stove was hot and a kettle was boiling on top of it. A sturdy woman was shaking milk solids in a large jar, and another one was preparing the ice.
‘See? we’ll add the ice to the jar, and the butter will get solid. Then we’ll shape it.’
Another woman brought in a bucketful of freshly squeezed milk.
‘It’s the right time to go and forage herbs,’ said one of the women. ‘We could make frittata. We should also start the water for polenta…
Here, in this house, all the chairs around the table were sat on, except one.
Marco started the polenta – a coarse, delicious polenta from Socchieve, full of black specks – and cooked the mushrooms in what I thought was too much butter. He is one of those extraordinary people who can cook in a shirt and dress pants and not get a single bit of food on himself.
I poured the tea.
‘Who is the extra cup from?’ they asked.
I accidentally poured one too many. I must have though Ophelia was there, gazing outside the window at her  own home from the empty chair.
‘I’ll have two,’ I said.

At Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom SauceAt Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom SauceAt Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom Sauce

Polenta ‘gnocchi’ are a dish, as said above, born to use leftover polenta. Polenta is one of the most common ingredients in Friuli, where wheat is almost nonexistent but there are several varieties of delicious ancient corn. Recipes from Friuli are simple, as, back in the early 1900s, it was one of the poorest regions in Italy. But its food, which varies from the earthy and fresh mountain flavors and down to the seaside, is some of the most interesting of the country and uses cinnamon and an immense array of cheeses widely.
This dish makes for a delicious veganizable (and gluten-free!) main course if you substitute olive oil for butter, and, since the mushrooms are so umami-rich, it will taste amazing without the cheese as well.
If using cheese and have no access to Montasio or Latteria, use Parmigiano or Grana to finish the dish, or any seasoned cheese you like and you have access to.

5.0 from 1 reviews
Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom Sauce
Cuisine: Italian
  • 400g (14 oz) leftover polenta
  • 3 tbsps butter (for a vegan version, use olive oil)
  • Coarse salt for the water
  • About 450g (1 lb) Galletti mushrooms, or a mix of your favorite mushrooms
  • 4-5 fresh small porcini*
  • 4 tbsps butter (for a vegan version, sub with olive oil)
  • 2 tbsps olive oil
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
  • A scant half cup (about 100 ml) dry white wine
  • A couple sprigs of thyme, OR 5-6 sage leaves
  • Salt and pepper
  • Grated cheese to finish, preferably seasoned Latteria or Montasio (skip if vegan)**
  1. Clean the girolles and porcini, or any mushroom you are using, with a cloth and a brush, so that you get rid of all the residue of soil. Mine were very fresh and quite dirty, so I also rinsed them under cold running water and dried them with a tea towel. Cut the mushroom in slices or smaller pieces.
  2. Add the butter, olive oil, herbs and garlic to the pan and turn on the heat on medium. When the butter melts and starts to sizzle, turn the heat to medium-high, and let the butter sizzle for a few seconds more. Add the mushrooms and turn the heat to high. Sauté them (or stir) to coat them in fat. Deglaze with the wine, and sauté a few seconds more. Let the wine evaporate completely. Add about ¼ cup water, salt and pepper to taste, and cover. Cook for 5 minutes. At this point, the mushrooms should have released their water. If they did, continue cooking, covered, for 5 more minutes, then uncover and cook, stirring every now and then, for 5 more minutes.
  3. If you used a kind of mushroom that releases less water, cook them on medium, turning down the heat to medium-low, rather than on high.
  4. When done, remove the garlic cloves and herbs.
  1. Prepare a pot of water, bring it to a boil and lightly salt it with coarse salt.
  2. Cut the leftover polenta into ½ inch cubes, and dump them into the boiling water. Once they float, drain them. It should take about 3 minutes.
  3. Melt the butter or oil in a pan and, once it sizzles, add the polenta gnocchi. Stir-fry, tossing every now and then, and let each side get golden. Once ready, drain them from excess fat and toss them with the mushrooms.
  4. Serve hot, with a grating of cheese on top.



– This Girolle Mushroom Risotto by the ever-amazing Valeria Necchio (and her book Veneto, which is so so good and a must-have);
Polenta Crostini with Mushrooms by Emiko Davies, who I had the privilege to taste and that are absolutely delicious (again, from her book Acquacotta which is so so good and a must-have);
– These beautiful Mushroom and Ricotta Tortellini by Twigg Studios, along with some stunning photos from Tuscany;
– The Mushroom Tagliatelle Betty Liu & I made together in Boston!!
– This (vegan) Pasta Bake with Mushrooms by The Blue Bride *insert heart-eyed emoticon* !!

At Ophelia's Home: Polenta Gnocchi with Mushroom Sauce


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