With some trepidation, Gabrielle Hamilton puts her own spin on risi e bisi — rice and peas.
There is a joke going around that divorce lawyers are limbering up for the post-pandemic onslaught of work headed their way. If you’ve ever had your marriage fall apart, it’s not the funniest joke, especially when there are kids involved. But here’s a really funny one in the opposite direction: The pandemic dissolved all residual rancor and friction between me and my ex-husband as soon as New York City shut down. Our situation created the urgent, nonnegotiable necessity for smooth cooperation: We have two children, and they had to go back and forth between our homes. No one could be harmed in the shuffle.
We quarantined hard and strict, as instructed, maintaining our hermetic pods, his in Queens, ours on the Lower East Side. It was a careful devotion administered with the same attitude I once used to drive other people’s children to a birthday party or home from a sleepover — like a diligent state trooper escorting a dignitary.
But recently our story has exceeded mere correct and ethical cooperation and actually blossomed toward something more like spirited, friendly bonding — not from any joyous, shared relief having to do with vaccines or antibodies or tests, but from a wild-card gift from the television that tapped into our mutual love for Italy. The actor Stanley Tucci had an addictive program on CNN that ran every Sunday night, devoted to all the foods of the many distinct regions of Italy. Tucci is of Italian descent, “on both sides,” as he says in the intro of his show; my ex-husband, Michele, is Italian Italian, from Rome. Our two sons have dual citizenship. The episodes had to be watched in real time, over six weeks, unwittingly creating for us the perfect conditions for a slow-built riavvicinamento. Or as they say on my French mother’s side of things: a rapprochement.
We watched rapt, scrutinizing and analyzing in a lively flurry of texts, with lots of exclamation points for the things we loved and puke emojis for the things we didn’t. We were enthusiastic about the regionally specific classic dishes and dismayed by the decision to sometimes feature modernist interpretations of them, like that of the young chef in one episode who takes the cucina povera dish of stale bread and ripe tomato known as panzanella and presents it in a little cup as a dreadful foam, a spuma. Who is allowed to cook what dish and still call it by its traditional name is a debate that will never be put to bed, alas, along with the question of authenticity, adaptation, modernization and why you would improve on a dish that doesn’t need improvement.
So it is with full self-awareness, self-consciousness, hypocrisy and trepidation that I dare present this classic Venetian risi e bisi — rice and peas — with modifications and bastardizations of my own, including the addition of dense, firm baby zucchini. The desired final consistency is brothy, not tight and creamy like risotto or drippy like a zuppa. We want to get that starchy quality from the rice, so we use carnaroli or vialone nano or arborio, but the rice alone can’t do the whole job of achieving that consistency; there has to be a bit of stirring throughout.
In terms of ratios, this version seriously favors the vegetables over the rice; I should have called it minestra di verdure con riso cremoso, but I couldn’t let go of how fun it is to say risi and bisi. I always have a lot of Parmigiano-Reggiano-rind broth on hand, especially during this past year of cooking at home, so I used it here, which is why I stirred in so relatively little additional grated cheese at the end. But a good chicken broth works beautifully, too.
Who is allowed to cook what dish and still call it by its traditional name is a debate that will never be put to bed.
I use a slightly weird cooking method that is ultimately logical and intuitive once you get into it, even if it might read as peculiar. It’s my way of cooking three things with three different cook times in the same pot. The zucchini needs a bit of time, so it goes in first, and then is pushed to the side while you attend to the rice. The peas will drink a lot of liquid and will cook relatively quickly, so they come in last. I’ve left the peas and the zucchini vibrant — they cook until done but not drab or deadly, leaving the dish itself colorful and very appealing.
I sweated it hard after weeks of watching Tucci’s program, questioning both the losses and gains of an obsession with “authenticity” and the suffocating claustrophobia and sometimes downright xenophobia of rigidly protecting tradition. Could I share this perfection of a spring dish, right now, the way I make it, the way I want you to try it, and still have the right to sit in my leather chair in front of the television ganging up with my ex-husband against the modernist tinkerers about whose dish you will never once say to yourself: “Oh, man, you know what I am craving right now? A little cupful of panzanella foam!”
But I sincerely think you will tuck this updated classic right into your springtime cooking repertoire and will pull it out for years to come, and your kids will, too, when they start cooking for their own families. And in the end, I remembered what I can’t even believe I’d forgotten — I am Italian, too. I’ve been sworn in, and have my passport, and here is my risi e bisi. Feel free to text with your own ex about it, with exclamation points or puke emojis. I will totally understand either way.
Recipe: Risi e Bisi