In Italy, spring sings a berry-flavored song, with strawberries breaking the monopoly of winter fruit. My mother often featured them at the end of a meal and I have memories of picking them in friends' gardens and in woods. Blackberries are connected to summer afternoons spent reaching out for the branch with the biggest fruit, the one that was always an inch too far from the farthest point I could safely reach. Raspberries, on the other hand, not as readily available as strawberries or blackberries, made rarer appearances in my life, until I moved to California, where they have become one of the reasons to welcome summer.
Now berry season is under way: Berries' vivid colors brush away winter blues and their flavors inspire the creative cook. While the immediate association might be berries at breakfast or for dessert, berries also perform very well in salads and other non-sweet dishes. If you are the designated berry picker or purchaser, you'll need to make sure that a viable quantity of the chosen berry reaches the kitchen. A conscious effort to restrain yourself is definitely needed in this challenging situation.
While I considered myself an expert in blackberry picking, I had no idea what to expect from a raspberry bush until we grew a couple in our yard (unfortunately, they did not last, for various reasons). Raspberries have an ethereal quality: Once picked, the berry is hollow -- which is not the case with blackberries.
Usually displayed alongside strawberries at farmers' markets and in grocery stores, raspberries look so delicate compared to the larger, sturdier cousins -- and they are. The lightest touch is required if you want to preserve raspberries' integrity. The easiest way to handle these berries is to transfer them from the plant or basket straight to your mouth. But I also like to do something with them -- add them to a green salad for example, together with sliced peaches. The result is a colorful salad with a distinct fruity flavor.
My favorite way of using raspberries as an ingredient is in a risotto. Strawberry risotto is an item you often find on the menu of restaurants in Italy. Only recently have I finally perfected a good recipe for it, but that is a story for another day. While I was still searching for the right combination to produce a strawberry risotto I liked, I decided to experiment using a different berry. Raspberries seemed like a good candidate. I planned a recipe and the realization of it supported my intuition, so I have been making this colorful, fruity risotto for some time.
Risotto is a dish best eaten immediately, but leftovers are a fact of life, and risotto al salto is the answer. Risotto alla milanese, the risotto with saffron that is the pride of Milanese cuisine, is traditionally used for this "day after" recipe. I have used leftovers from all my various risotti with vegetables or berries to prepare it. The idea is to shape the risotto into a thick pancake and pan fry it on both sides until a crisp crust forms. Risotto is thus given a second chance to please the palate and takes full advantage of it.
Simona's Raspberry Risotto
6 oz. fresh raspberries
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar, possibly ultrafine
1/2-1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons minced shallot
Leaves of two sprigs of fresh thyme
2 tablespoons white wine
1 cup Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano rice
2 cups vegetable broth plus 1 cup water (to make a light vegetable broth)
1 oz. fresh chevre, crumbled
Sea salt, to taste
Sprinkle sugar and lemon on the raspberries, toss gently and let stand for a couple of hours at room temperature.
Purée the raspberries, then remove seeds by pressing through a mesh strainer set over a bowl. (Only the raspberry seeds should remain in the strainer.) Set aside the raspberry purée.
Bring the light vegetable broth to a simmer in a 1 qt. saucepan and keep it at that temperature (you may not need it all, depending on the variety of rice you use).
In a 2 qt. saucepan, warm up olive oil, then add shallot and thyme and stir. Cook for a few minutes until the shallot is translucent, then add the rice. Toast the rice for one minute while stirring, then add the wine. Let the wine evaporate, while stirring the rice, then add enough of the simmering vegetable broth to barely cover the rice.
Allow the rice to absorb most of the broth, then add more broth, a ladleful at a time, letting the rice absorb most of the broth before adding more. Make sure the rice never gets dry, keep it at a lively simmer and stir at regular intervals.
Taste the rice 15 minutes after the first addition of broth: if it feels a bit hard at the core, cook it a minute or two longer, then check again. (Cooking time depends on various factors, including the kind of rice.) Make the last addition of broth smaller, so the cooked risotto is a bit dry. Risotto should be soft and creamy but with some body (slightly al dente).
In the meantime, warm up the raspberry purée (you can use your microwave, or warm by placing the bowl with the purée on top of the pan with the broth). As soon as the rice is done, stir in the raspberry purée. Remove the pan from the heat, add the cheese and stir well to incorporate. Taste and adjust the salt, if needed.
Let the risotto rest, covered, for a couple of minutes, while you gather the guests around the table. Serve immediately and enjoy.
Risotto al Salto
olive oil (or unsalted butter)
Warm up an oiled skillet (or melt butter in it). Add a portion of leftover risotto and press it into a thick pancake. Cook for 5 minutes until a crust forms on the bottom, then flip carefully, with the help of a plate or of a lid that does not have a lip. Cook for another five minutes, until a crust forms on the new bottom. Carefully slide onto a plate and serve immediately.