Risotto Sondrio-Style with Spinach and Other Vegetables

Risotto Coi Spinaci Come lo Fanno a Sondrio

Long ago, Victor and I were living in Milan. I was teaching biology and mathematics and he was working for the McCann-Erickson advertising agency producing television commercials. On one occasion the crew was working near the Lombard town of Sondrio in Valtellina, the mountainous district backed up against the Alpine wall that separates Italy from Switzerland.

Valtellina is celebrated for robust red wine and robust cooking to go with it. I was fascinated to find so many dishes new to me then, pastas, polenta, and fritters made with buckwheat flour, bresaola—beef tenderloin cured in the mountain air and sliced like prosciutto—and dumplings and other dishes using spinach. Among them was an excellent risotto with spinach.

I tried and tried to reproduce it after we got back to Milan, but it lacked something of the mellowness and teasing fragrance of the original. I had put it completely out of mind when, a great many years later, it came up in conversation with a woman who happened to be from Sondrio and who said, “I’ll tell you how I make it. Try it and see if it is the way you remember it.” It was indeed, and I found I had been omitting the leeks and celery from the flavor base, which when sautéed all together with the spinach, produced that teasingly fragrant and mellow quality that I had long before sought.

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Ingredients

  • pounds fresh spinach
  • Salt
  • 1 medium leek
  • 8 cups homemade meat broth, prepared or 1 cup canned beef broth diluted with 7 cups water
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • cup chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons very finely chopped carrot
  • 2 tablespoons very finely chopped celery
  • Black pepper ground fresh
  • cups carnaroli, arborio, or other imported Italian rice for risotto

For Mantecare

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Method

  1. Detach the stems from the spinach leaves and discard them. Soak the leaves in a basinful of cold water, drain, and repeat the step several times until the spinach is free of all soil and grit.
  2. Pour enough water in a saucepan to come 3 inches up the sides, bring it to a boil, add 2 tablespoons of salt, put in the spinach, cook for 3 or 4 minutes, then drain.
  3. When the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze as much water out of it as you can with your hands, then chop it very fine.
  4. Wash the leek, trim away about 1 inch from the green tops and a thin slice from the root end, then slice it into thin rounds.
  5. Pour the broth into a saucepan, bring it to a simmer.
  6. Place the heavy-bottomed saucepan where you’ll be making the risotto on the burner nearest to the broth; put in 3 tablespoons of butter, the vegetable oil, and the chopped onion; and turn on the heat to medium high. Cook the onion, stirring frequently, until it becomes colored a pale gold; add the sliced leek and cook it as you did the onion.
  7. Add the carrot and celery and, turning them over several times, cook them for about 1 minute until they are well coated. Add the spinach, salt, several grindings of black pepper; turn over all ingredients several times using a wooden spoon; and cook for 1 more minute.
  8. Add the rice and stir it vigorously with a wooden spoon or a spatula for about a minute until the grains are well coated. Add 1 cup of simmering broth, and cook the rice, stirring it and periodically adding liquid, as described in the basic risotto.
  9. Finish cooking the rice, stirring always, until it is tender but firm to the bite, about 25 minutes. Although there ought to be no free liquid left in the pot, the risotto’s consistency should be rather rippling, all’onda. Turn off the heat and perform the mantecare step, adding 2 tablespoons of butter and all the grated Parmesan, stirring vigorously, turning the risotto over four or five times. Taste and correct for salt. Serve at once.

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