RAIN, RAIN, GO AWAY...
Fall rain is somehow different from summer rain. June and July were unusually chilly, the days of bright sun alternating with dreary gray, intermittent with rain. We stayed crouched in front of the television, waiting impatiently to begin living the walks and outings, the promises of summer, as we usually do this time of year. And then, as quickly as it disappeared, the sun would make a return appearance and we would enjoy a few more days of lovely weather, as if the rain simply rushed through to cleanse and refresh. Then off I flew to the States where I was greeted by the scorching heat, heat seeping under my skin, clothing pressing to my body like unwanted hands holding tight, my breath coming in short, shallow gasps each time I stepped over the threshold. The heat in Oman was heavier on the skin, pressing, harassing, choking, all the more so for the long sleeves we wore. Short bursts outside followed necessarily by cooling breaks indoors or in the Gulf breeze, icy lemon mint drink in hand.
Gorgeous, welcoming days of autumn fluttered around me upon my return to France. Comforting, cajoling with the promise of long strolls followed by picnics, moods refreshed. Yet since this weekend we sit shivering in the damp chill of the apartment, Marty pacing back and forth between hallway and living room searching desperately for a much-needed and expected ray of sunlight splashing across the carpet, his usual spot for a snooze. To no avail. We scooch on an extra layer of sweaters, sauté onions to be slipped into simmering broth sweetened by warm, plump golden raisins and ladle the liquid gold over steaming couscous, cupping our hands around the toasty bowl as we breathe in the fragrant wisps of comfort. The rain of autumn is unrelenting in its harshness, its all-encompassing moodiness envelops us in dark thoughts, our limbs heavy, our brains soft. No glimmer of hope in a fall drizzle, no hint of sun waiting patiently in the wings. We stare out the window and think that it will never, ever end.
Today, as I glance out at the pewter sky, rooftops hazy in the thick, heavy gloom, I try and conjure up autumns past. Our trip to Italy looms on the horizon, and I am sorely praying for a truly Tuscan autumn. Leaves turning to gold and burnished red, flaming orange pumpkins, porcini and chestnuts in hues of chocolate snuggled side by side with deep purple figs in a festive embrace. Autumn’s colors are romantically deep and moody, the rustle of leaves and the breeze tickling our senses with mystery. Oh, we had rain in Italy, torrential rain, but I choose to remember the beauty that surrounded me on those special days of cool sunshine, impeccably dressed men and women hurrying down Corso Vercelli or heaps upon heaps of artichokes green, jade, violet threatening to tumble from market stalls; the heady scent of Parmesan in tremendous wheels, smoked scamorza and taleggio as Franco and Vittorio shout Buon Giorno! Come Stai? from the brightly lit area behind the chilly cases; as the tortellini and ravioli turn to pumpkin and mushroom and deep purple grapes hang in elegant bunches from the dark foliage spread across our terrace. Yes, the furs and quilted jackets come out, the sun is brilliant and the smell of chestnuts haunts us from every street corner. That is my autumn.
But as the weather turns unexpectedly in its precipitation, I wonder at the urgency, the need to skip entirely over gentle summer, an entire season. I long not for the searing, seething heat of New Orleans, Florida or Oman, but the quiet warmth of the ideal summer, of long days with windows flung open, feet up, our moods as relaxed and calm as the weather. I dream not of a torrid, aggressive, sweltering canicule as we have know so well in another life, but a temperate, peaceful turning towards autumn. Suitcases emptied of beachwear and shorts; sandals flung into the closet as sunglasses are tucked into etuis, I have been digging out thicker knits, shrugging on fleece and trying to squeeze into trousers not worn for a year. Happily, we drive down to Italy so I can stuff my biggest suitcase with a wide selection of summery, fall and cold weather outfits, shoes and coats galore, whatever I might possibly need. But I pray for a cold, crisp, bright autumn. And the food that goes with it.
But for now, until them, I hold onto summer in the kitchen. The bright reds, greens and brilliant white of the clean, fresh foods of a hot weather season bring cheer to the gloom, warmth to the icy bleakness and visions of Mediterranean islands. Slow roasted cherry tomatoes are fruity and smoky, peas sweet and tender, aromatic mint a breath of outdoors, feta adding saltiness and zing to salads, pizzas and pasta. I bring the three together in a dish to warm us up on a chilly day in a damp apartment and it works wonders! Risotto is soothing and comforting and I pop the traditional Risi e Bisi (Rice and Kisses), Pea Risotto, by adding lots of chopped fresh mint and crumbled feta to the mix instead of parsley and Parmesan and serve it with sweet, tangy roasted cherry tomatoes, an extra flavor boost. Served with fluffy scones rich with Parmesan cheese and a bottle of red wine and the meal is complete. And we sit back, warmed and satisfied and dream of Italy.
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PEA, MINT & FETA RISOTTO WITH ROASTED CHERRY TOMATOES
1 small onion, finely diced
3 Tbs (45 g) unsalted butter
1 Tbs olive oil
1 ½ - 2 cups young, tiny sweet peas, fresh or frozen
@ 5 cups (1 ½ litres) chicken or vegetable stock, warm
9 oz (250 g) round rice for risotto, Arborio, Vialone Nano or Carnaroli
Handful of chopped fresh mint
3.5 – 5 oz (100 – 150 g) chopped or crumbled Greek feta
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Firm cherry tomatoes, about 4 or 5 per person
2 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
3 peeled and crushed (not chopped) garlic cloves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Begin by roasting the cherry tomatoes:
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Place the individual quiche tins on a baking sheet.
Stir together 2 tablespoons olive oil with 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar in a glass baking dish or pie plate. Season with a little salt and pepper and add 2 peeled and crushed garlic cloves. Toss the cherry tomatoes into the flavored oil and roast for about 20 minutes or until the skins are split and shriveled and the tomatoes start to show signs of roasting (a bit golden). If you like, turn on the overhead grill for the last couple of minutes to color. Remove from the oven and allow to cool while preparing the rest.
Prepare the Risotto:
Heat half the butter and the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the chopped onion and, stirring, cook for a couple of minutes until softened and just starting to turn golden. Add the peas and a few tablespoons of the warm stock and cook for a few minutes to defrost the frozen peas or up to 10 minutes for fresh peas until tender.
Add the rice and toss with the shallots and peas until all the grains are coated in oil. Cook for a minute or two until the grains of rice become more translucent. Pour on two ladlefuls of broth and cook, stirring continuously and gently, until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Continue cooking the risotto over medium heat, adding 2 ladlefuls of broth at a time, stirring constantly and allowing each addition of liquid to be almost absorbed before adding more broth. This should take between 20 and 25 minutes total cooking time from the moment the rice is added to the peas.
A few minutes before the rice is done, stir in a large handful of chopped fresh mint and the chopped or crumbled feta, more or less as you please. Taste and add a bit of salt only as needed – the stock and the feta are both salty so taste to see if any additional salt is necessary. Add pepper.
When the risotto is finished, the rice should be meltingly tender, the risotto creamy and smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining butter. Serve with the warm roasted cherry tomatoes and the Parmesan Scones.
Adapted from the Sept-Oct 2011 French Saveurs magazine
10 ½ oz (300 g) flour
1 sachet (0.4 oz/11 g) baking powder
1 tsp salt
7/8 cup (200 ml) heavy cream
3 ½ oz (100 g) grated Parmesan
2 Tbs milk for brushing the tops of the scones
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
Blend the flour, baking powder, salt and grated Parmesan cheese together in a mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Pour the cream into the well and, using a fork, stir together rapidly until the dry ingredients are moistened and the dough begins pulling together. Scrape out onto a floured surface and knead quickly until the dough is smooth and homogenous.
Roll out the dough to a thickness of about ¾ - 1 inch but no more (about 1 ½ - 2 cm) and use a biscuit cutter to cut rounds about 2 inches wide (about 5 cm). Place the rounds of dough on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, gather the rest of the dough together, roll out again, and finish cutting into rounds.
Lightly brush the tops of each scone with milk and bake for 15 minutes until puffed up and the tops are golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool just a bit before serving. With butter, of course.