Veneto, a land situated in the northeast Italy of which the large plains turn abruptly into mountains or meet the north of the Adriatic, is a land of misty dampness, blessed with some of the best vineyards in Italy, and with beautiful cities, reminiscent of the Austrian empire that once ruled this area. Veneto is a land of villas, of ghosts of lords who ruled over them and whose presence almost seems to linger amidst the fog. It is a land of canals and ancient royalties, of shipyards and seafood and the preserving culture connected to it.
Amidst this wonder, Venice stands alone, yet blends beautifully into the common traits of Veneto.
And, in this regard, Venice – just like all of Veneto, is a land of rice.
The abundance of water, fog and dampness made it a perfect spot to grow rice, making the whole region famous for its risottos.
My great-grandmother, a native of Chioggia, right off the coasts of Venice, has spent her life bent over a rice field, her feet constantly wet, picking fresh grains of rice.
So, even though Veneto indefinitely not the only place in Italy famous for risotto, to me this special preparation will always connected to this region.
After writing my little post on how to spend a winter day in Venice, I was inspired to replicate a Venetian recipe and, even though there are several to choose from, I could’t help but think of risotto once again.
In venice, risottos tend to be soupier, or ‘all’onda’, as we say (literally ’at the wave’, romantically recalling, I like to think, its proximity to the sea.
The recipe I chose to share this time is so simple I almost felt it wasn’t worth sharing. I found it in a book called ‘A Tola coi nostri Veci’, which in venetian dialect means ‘At the Table with our Elderly People’, and is an old book of recipes from Veneto, entirely written in Venetian dialect!
When I talked to Zaira, she confirmed that this recipe is definitely very popular amongst Venetian people, and that her parents still prepare it quite often. After Zaira’s confirmation, I felt even more attracted to this recipe. Risotto is meant to be a simple, fuss-free comfort food, which takes pride in its creaminess and texture rather than its ingredients: you will find that most traditional risottos have as little as five ingredients, and usually one defining vegetable. Choose these ingredients wisely, and your risotto will be worthy to be served to royalty.
In the case of this risotto, the one vegetable that defines it is celery.
In my home, celery has always been a rather neglected vegetable – save for its classic use in mirepoix along with carrot and onion. Anise-y flavors have started grow on me just recently, but even so, my favorite way to enjoy celery was cut into sticks and eaten raw with extra virgin olive oil, aged balsamic and a touch of salt.
It was a Hungarian lady I was working forth years ago who taught me how to use it: she would use it in stir-fries, in stews, roasted with cheese, braised. She would use the leaves to add flavor to soups and to make pesto (a recipe I will definitely share at some point).
In this risotto, the celery adds a hint of freshness and turns wonderfully aromatic along with the shallots. For this recipe, use the tender heart of white celery if you can find it. Otherwise, just use the heart from regular green celery – leaves and all.
Last year, I wrote a guide on how to make the perfect risotto. Give it a read if you need some extra guidance, but this recipes is so simple that it does not need that much preparation.
Butter and cheese, which are of really high quality in northern Italy thanks to our free-range, grass-fed pastures, are paramount in this preparation. Choose high quality butter and real Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, which you will very likely find in most cheese counters.
I have recently discovered the most wonderful way to finish risotto, thanks to a friend of Gabriela who kindly invited us to dinner in their home in Bologna, and who works as a chef: he prepared a beautiful pumpkin risotto – common preparation in all of northern Italy – then finished it by stirring in some baccalà mantecato. I discovered that this preparation, which is a very Venetian one indeed, is used to finish risotto a wide area of the Padan plain, from Parma to Mantova and all the way to Veneto. Its creaminess melts into the risotto perfectly, and its high-fat content makes for the best of Sunday dishes for a winter day. If you can find or make baccalá mantecato, it is a treat well worth the effort. I believe that cod brandade would be a good choice as well, should that be easier to find or make.
NOTE: sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can find semi-brown risotto rice, which has a little more nutritional value. Unfortunately, brown rice does not really turn creamy, so using risotto rice for this recipe is really important.
NOTE 2: The cheese you see pictured is actually neither Parmigiano nor Grana. It is Pecorino Romano, which is one of the tastiest cheeses in existence but probably a little too strong for this risotto. Please forgive me for forgetting to stock up on Parmigiano!
There is no one who embodies the essence of Venice like Zaira and her family: the art, the Old Masters, the elegance, the slight air of mystery, the ancient-yet-perfectly-modern style, the overall feeling of noble decadence of the furniture of their home, the neutral grey and blues of their clothes, and humble yet poised warmth of their table. I am convinced that there is an old Venetian duke in the shadow of their past lives.
The same simple elegance shows through the beautiful ceramics she and her boyfriend Francesco craft under the name of The Freaky Raku. I am honored to be able to use their ceramics in my posts, and I am honored to give one away to you – specifically, the speckled bowl you see in this photo.
Follow @valentinahortus @thefreakyraku @thefreakytable on Instagram to be kept posted!
Look out for a post on Instagram about it in the next couple of days!
And now, onto the recipe!
- 50 g (a little less than half a stick) butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 small shallots (weighting about 60g / 2.5 oz.), finely chopped
- The heart of a white or green celery, with its leaves (use about ¼ packed cup leaves), finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 320g Risotto rice, preferably ‘Carnaroli' or 'Vialone nano’ varieties
- ¼ cup Marsala wine or white wine
- 1 lt / 4 cups vegetable stock
- 60g / 2.5 oz grated Parmigiano or Grana cheese, or more to taste
- A touch of grated lemon zest
- Chopped parsley
- A good tablespoonful of baccalá mantecato or cod brandade
- Melt the butter and oil in a pot, preferably a sautéuse or a pot with a handle and tall edges.
- Add the shallots and stir-fry for a couple minutes, until they turn translucent.
- Add the celery and sauté for couple minutes, stirring every now and then.
- Add the tomato paste and melt it in the fat. Stir it for a minute or so, until the tomato usefully blended into the mix. You can use as little tomato paste or as much as you like: I used very little, as I wanted my risotto more on the white side, but adding a full tablespoon makes for a very tasty risotto.
- Add the rice, and stir it around for a minute to toast and release the starch. Add the marsala or wine and let it evaporate. If you do not have any wine, feel free to skip this step.
- Start adding the stock: add one cup first, and wait for it to be fully absorbed before adding the next. The liquid should simmer slowly, on a medium-low fire. To stir the risotto, swirl the pot rather than mixing with a spoon, so the risotto will have the best consistency. Only use a wooden spoon every now and then to check the bottom and make sure it doesn’t stick. Add salt to taste - use about ½ teaspoon.
- The rice should be left slightly ‘al dente’, but it should not be tough. A regular white rice will take about 15 to 20 minutes to cook. Once of the stock has been absorbed and the rice cooked, you should be left with a creamy risotto that is slightly on the soupy side. If you’d like it more soupy, add half a cup more stock.
- Stir in the cheese to finish the risotto. Check for salt, and adjust to taste. If you like, you can finish with a touch more oil or butter.
- This super simple risotto can be finished in a variety of ways. Stir in lemon zest and/or parsley, which complement the buttery, cheesy flavor perfectly with their hint of freshness. Or, try my favorite way to finish this risotto and make it even more Venetian: add baccalá mantecato, or cod brandade, whichever you can find or make the easiest.
~ Emiko Davies has a wonderful recipe for a ‘Risotto in Cantina’ (Cellar risotto), made with wonderful white wines from Veneto, along with a story of how it came to be.
~ Giulia Scarpaleggia has a recipe for one of the best risottos out there – though it may not be exactly in season right now: whole wheat risotto with wild asparagus. And, speaking of spring risottos from Veneto, Skye McAlpine has a recipe for vegetable and mint risotto up on her blog.
~ Aside my basic risotto guide, last year I also published a simple Fennel Risotto, another Venetian recipe.
~ Zaira has a plethora of Venetian recipes up on her blog, none of which are risotto but all of which have a little bit of Venice in them, I believe. Plus, they are all served in beautiful Freaky Raku dishware, of course.
A little final note
I believe that my true calling, as well as the true calling of this blog, is to share the story and recipes of Italian food. Much as I love researching vegetarian and vegan recipes, sometimes I feel like this restriction is limiting in regards of the stories I would love to tell. After all, I eat close to no meat at all, but I am no vegetarian: I grew up next to the sea, and fresh seafood on the table is still a thing in my household.
Of course, I won’t suddenly go showing meat on the blog – the main focus of this blog will still be vegetables and whole foods – but I will suggest pairings or flavor accents that belong to the omnivore world – like I did here with the Baccalá, because that’s what I do in real life, and I hope you do not mind.