Il Fungo (the mushroom), a rock formation just off the island of Ischia.
Recipe: Risotto Ischia Style, with Summer Tomatoes, Cockles, and Fennel
Yesterday there was a touch of fall in the air. It scared me, and I had to cook something summery to keep it at bay. I thought of a risotto I ate years ago in Ischia Porto during one of my first self discovery explorations, when I set out on a mission to make myself feel somewhat Italian, something I had oddly lacked despite being brought up in an Italian-American family. Ischia, which was full of pale German and English elders, some gravely ill, some missing limbs, all there to take the farty healing waters, didn’t actually call to my roots, but its food went straight to my soul. I’d eaten it all before, either at my mother’s table or in my dreams.
The risotto I ordered at a little trattoria on the water was a real Southern Italian creation—no butter, no cheese, no meat, no glop, just tomatoes, olive oil, herbs, and a big whiff of the briny sea. I’m so glad I cooked it last night (well, it wasn’t exactly the same dish, but it was very close, and it was good). And, see, today was warm and sunny. Summer returned.
Risotto Ischia Style, with Summer Tomatoes, Cockles, and Fennel
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small fennel bulb, cut into small dice
2 shallots, minced
1 fresh green chili, seeded and minced
2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
A small palmful of fennel seeds
2 cups vialone nano rice
½ cup dry white wine
6 cups light chicken broth, heated
2 pounds cockles, well cleaned
A splash of Pernod or another pastis
2 large, round summer tomatoes, skinned, seeded, and well chopped
A big handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
Choose a wide, shallow pan that will hold all the cockles when opened.
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the fennel, shallot, and green chili, and sauté until everything is soft and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and fennel seeds, and sauté about a minute longer. Add the rice, giving it a little salt and black pepper, and sauté for about a minute or so to coat it well with oil and flavoring. Add the white wine, and start stirring the rice, letting the wine boil away. Add a ladle of hot broth, and stir the rice a few more times, keeping it at a lively bubble.
Throw the cockles into a big pot. Add a tiny splash of Pernod and a small ladle of chicken broth. Turn the heat to high, and cook until the cockles open, about 4 minutes or so. Remove the pot from the stove.
Keep adding ladles of broth to the rice as the pan gets dry, stirring fairly often (contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to do this consistently to achieve a good risotto). After about 10 minutes of adding broth and stirring, add the tomatoes. Keep adding broth until the rice is just tender to the bite and has a lightly creamy texture. This should take about 18 minutes in all.
Now add the cockles with all their cooking liquid to the rice, and give it a stir (cockles are usually pretty clean, but if you see any sand in the cooking liquid, strain it first). The texture should be somewhat loose. Add a little more broth or warm water if you need to. Taste for seasoning, and add the basil, giving it a final stir. Give the risotto a drizzle of your best olive oil, and serve right away.