I’m not either, but we’ve had a string of late-afternoon thunderstorms that seem to deliberately pass through our neighborhood right about the time we we would be lighting the coals. The other night, this was my backup plan: risotto with summer squash, mozzarella and saffron.
That golden color, by the way, is not enhanced; it is “oro rosso” or “red gold” ~ precious saffron from Abruzzo’s Navelli plain. It’s an expensive spice, about 20 Euros, or $27 for 1 gram (0.03 ounce) if you buy it there, more if you buy it here. Saffron, the dried stigmas of the purple-striped flowers of the Crocus sativus plant, is still collected by hand in Abruzzo. The flowers are harvested every day at dawn (before they open and release their powder and fragrance) between the end of September and the beginning of October. The blossoms are then pried open by hand, the stigmas collected and dried the same day. It’s not an easy job: it takes 200 individual flowers to obtain that one gram of saffron threads.
Navelli, a high plain of the Gran Sasso d’Italia mountain range, has been producing some of the world’s best saffron since, the story goes, Padre Domenico Santucci, a Dominican friar from a well-to-do local family, first planted it in the 13th century. The plain’s microclimate turned out to be ideal, and cultivation flourished for centuries, especially in Northern Europe (Navelli saffron contributes the key flavor in risotto alla Milanese) before declining in the 20th century ~ only 20 strictly regulated acres are cultivated today by a small, dedicated cooperative of growers.
Whenever I use saffron in cooking I can’t help but think of that friar. In my (slightly warped) mind he looks less like Friar Tuck and more like Brother Sun (circa 1972); he’s wearing long brown robes, tied at the waist with a cord, and worn sandals as he walks along the plain. He’s carrying an armload of those purple-striped crocuses (croci?) and every few yards he tosses out a few blossoms here and there. He’s happy (obviously; he’s in Abruzzo).
I’m usually parsimonious with my saffron, but I just brought back a small stash so I decided to buck my usual hoarder ways and use some right away. (The good news is that a little Abruzzese saffron goes a long way; it has a rich, savory fragrance and alluring, earthy flavor.) I’m saving the rest for a rainy day. They do happen from time to time.
Navelli is one of the stops on our September culinary tour.
Here’s a 2010 article about Navelli saffron cultivation from the New York Times.
I’ve started a new Tumblr blog called Abruzzo365. I’ll be posting a new photo, fact, recipe or something of note from my favorite region every day. Please follow along.
What I love about this recipe is its simplicity ~ just a few ingredients stirred together are magically transformed into this gentle summery risotto. Make this when you want to take a break from grilling. And, if you can find saffron from Navelli, in Abruzzo (look online), use it. It's the best. This recipe is adapted from one in my book 'The Glorious Vegetables of Italy.'
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablexpoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small red onion, finely chopped
- 2 cups Arborio, Carnaroli or other short-grain rice
- Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 5 to 6 cups chicken or vegetable broth (homemade if you have it)
- Generous pinch of saffron threads (.05 g or 1 g if you want to splurge)
- 2 medium zucchini, julienned on a mandoline or shredded
- Handful of zucchini blossoms (optional), cut crosswise into thick shreds
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
- 1/2 cup diced fresh mozzarella
Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter and the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat. When the butter starts to sizzle, add the onion and cook, stirring often, for 7 minutes, or until softened.
Stir in the rice, 1 teaspoon of salt and a grinding or two of pepper and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the grains of rice start to look glassy. Raise the head to medium-high and pour in the wine. Let it bubble for a minute or two, then reduce the heat to medium-low and begin to add the broth, a ladleful at a time, stirring often, until the liquid is almost absorbed. Continue to cook the risotto, adding broth as necessary, for 10 minutes.
Stir in the saffron and julienned zucchini. Keep stirring and adding broth as necessary, for another 10 minutes or so, until the rice is almost but not completely cooked. It should be firm and a little chalky at the center. Test by tasting a few grains.
Gently stir in the zucchini blossoms and a little more broth. When the broth has been absorbed, stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter, the Parmigiano and the mozzarella. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper, if you like. Stir in a final ladleful of broth to achieve a creamy texture. The risotto should be neither stiff nor runny; it should mound softly on a spoon.
Spoon the risotto into shallow bowls and serve immediately, with additional Parmigiano on the side.