“Rice and Peas”- Venetian style
As a rule, I’m a fairly punctual person. But for reasons that I will explain, I am devoting this column to one of the most famous of all Venetian dishes traditionally served on April 25 to celebrate the birthday of St. Mark, patron saint of Venice. Rice and peas, or “Risi e bisi” in Venetian dialect is a luxurious rice soup – minestra – celebrating springtime and the arrival of the tiny sweet green peas from the islands in the lagoon to the Rialto market. The simple reason that I am writing about this sumptuous creation now is that young peas in their pods are not really found in our markets until late May to early June. And I must in all honesty add, that in the absence of freshly picked peas, frozen “tiny tender” peas will provide a more than adequate substitute. Once peas have been standing in stores for a few days, their intense, juicy sugariness dwindles into a not so pleasant grainy starch.
Cooks in the Veneto would use the variety of rice called Vialone Nano instead of Arborio or other short grain rice varieties. It belongs to the semifino rice category and looks like a stubby, small chipped grain. This recipe does not utilize the traditional risotto technique when you have to add broth slowly to the rice, stirring patiently as it is absorbed, ladleful by ladleful. Here, to get the texture that is something between a soup and a risotto, you add all of the broth at once and let it simmer. And while most modern versions call for chicken broth, a hard-line Venetian would cook the rice in a broth sweetened with the shells and shoots of the tender fresh peas. I’m not at all bothered by a bit of corruption of this dish. In fact, I’m delighted to know that at the end of a long day, I can make a quick and extremely delicious dinner without much frenzied preparation.
Risi e Bisi (serves 4)
- 2 T. olive oil
- 2 oz. pancetta or Prosciutto di Parma, finely minced or ground
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 3 C. fresh shelled peas (about 3 lbs.) or 1 lb. frozen “tiny tender” peas, not defrosted
- 6 C. chicken broth or vegetable broth or broth made by simmering pea pods and shoots for 1 hour
- 5 T. unsalted butter
- 1 C. Vialone Nano short grain rice
- 2 T. fresh Italian parsley, leaves only, minced
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 C. Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese, grated
- Heat the olive oil and 2 T of the butter in a medium-size casserole set over low heat. When the butter is melted, add the pancetta or prosciutto and onion and cook, stirring until the onion is tender but not brown.
- Stir in the peas, 1 T. of parsley and 1 cup of the broth, season with salt and pepper, and cook 10 minutes uncovered.
- Pour in the remaining 5 cups of broth and when it reaches a boil add the rice. Mix very well, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and stir in more salt if needed and freshly ground black pepper. The rice should be cooked through but not mushy. The final texture should be something between a real risotto and a thick bean soup.
- Remove the casserole from the heat; add the remaining butter, cheese and parsley, mixing very well.
- Serve immediately in warmed soup plates.
Vialone Nano rice available at:
151 Richmond St.
Tel (617) 523-8743
Fresh peas available at:
18 Parmenter St.
First published in the “The North End News” May 16, 2007