With each new spring season, Mother Nature treats us to a basket of ingredients that, for the most part, are in their prime from April through June. In my region of the country, peas—or English peas as they are sometimes called—are available from late April through mid-May. Needless to say, there is a short window of time to take advantage of dishes that feature this spring ingredient. A mash of fresh peas with mint on toast, peas with pasta, peas with mushrooms and herbs, peas with squid or scallops, peas with chicken, in a spring greens soup, and, of course, the recipe I am sharing in this post—peas and rice.
Risi e bisi is a very old Venetian recipe, which some consider perhaps the most famous of Venetian dishes. It falls somewhere between a risotto and a soup. However, like all risottos in the Venetian style (all’onda, literally “wavy”) which are more soup-like rather than the more traditional, drier, fluffier finish to a risotto dish. The essential point to be made here is that risi e bisi is not actually a classic risotto dish with peas but instead a textured Venetian soup better eaten with a spoon than a fork.
Risi e bisi is always served as a starter, dished up in wide bowls or on wide plates with a shallow well, spread in a thin layer rather than a mound like a traditional risotto.
If you are able to source fresh peas still in the pod, save the pods, removing any stalk, membrane, and stringy edges, before including those pods to your base stock for an added depth of flavor. My recommendation for the base stock would be either a light vegetable, or chicken, or, one made from the rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
If fresh peas are unavailable, then a good substitute would be frozen baby or petite peas.
What type of rice? If you consider yourself a purest you might select Vialone Nano rice that is at the heart of most Venetian risotto dishes. The other options would be either Carnaroli rice, often referred to the “king of Italian rice,” or the more available arborio rice.
When cooking the rice for this dish, or for any other risotto dish for that matter, there are a few fundamental rules that you should follow:
- Select the correct rice (options already noted above).
- Use a wide pan with a heavy bottom that can distribute heat evenly.
- The stock should always be hot.
- If you include a soffritto or pancetta in your recipe, thoroughly sauté that first before adding the rice.
- After the initial sauté and lightly heating the rice, deglaze the pan and moisten the rice with white wine before adding the first ladle full of stock.
- Use a wooden spoon, stirring in the same direction from the center of the pan outward. Stir occasionally instead of continuously to blend the stock and the rice as constant stirring releases more starch, and makes the rice too sticky. Don’t work too quickly so as not to lose the delicate creaminess of the rice, and never cook the rice ahead of time to be finished later as it takes a good 20 minutes to prepare any risotto dish that you don’t want to become a sticky mush. A proper risotto dish is prepared al minuto, “to the minute,” as a true risotto is never cooked ahead of time.
- If using butter, any herbs, spice, and/or cheese to finish the dish, take the pan off the heated stovetop and gently fold in the additional ingredients. Additional cheese can be added tableside.
One final point: truth be told, with this dish I included the remaining English peas I had on hand frozen from last spring’s bounty, along with the first fresh batch I was able to secure at the market. As I often do with sweet corn at summer’s end, I remove the kernels from two dozen ears, quickly blanch, and then freeze for use throughout the fall and winter. Same with the peas: remove them from the pods, quickly blanch, divide into individual portions in freeze-proof bags and freeze. If you consider using the pods for stock, the blanching and freezing technique works for them as well.
Here is my adaptation of this dish.
Risi e Bisi • Rice and Peas
Ingredients (serves 4)
2 to 3 pounds peas in the pods or 1½ to 2 cups of shelled peas fresh or frozen
1 medium white or red onion, finely minced
1 rib of celery, finely minced
2 oz pancetta, finely chopped (optional)
1½ cups dry white wine or vermouth
8 to 10 cups stock, as needed (may not use it all)
1½ cups risotto rice (as suggested)
2 to 3 sprigs fresh parsley, finely minced
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or aged Pecorino, as needed
2 to 3 tablespoons of butter to finish, along with salt and pepper to taste
To start the dish, bring a small stockpot of water to a boil. Blanch fresh peas for 1 minute, drain, rinse under cool water, and set aside.
In a larger stockpot bring the broth to a boil, lower the heat and keep the broth warm through the cooking process.
In a large round or oval sauté pan with a heavy bottom, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil over a medium temperature. If using the pancetta, sauté that first so that it renders some of the fat and begins to soften. If not, then begin the sauté with both the minced onion and celery, sweating and softening until they take on a pale golden color but not browned. Lightly season with salt and pepper.
Add the rice, folding it into the soffritto, stirring for about 5 minutes, then add the wine.
As the wine sizzles and begins to cook off, stir occasionally until the liquid is reduced by more than half.
Begin to add the hot stock a ladle at a time. Simmer, occasionally stirring so that the stock is slowly absorbed, but the sauté remains wet but not too soup-like.
Continue adding the stock ladle by ladle, stirring as you go and taste test after 15 minutes to determine if the rice is cooked properly. You are looking for a texture that is firm not mushy (al dente). Add the peas and enough extra stock to make the dish almost, but not quite as liquid as a soup. Stir to heat the peas through.
Take the sauté off the hot stovetop, add the butter stirring to melt, and incorporate. Check and correct the seasoning as needed and sprinkle approximately ¼ to ½ cup of the grated cheese over.
Spoon the risi e bisi into warm serving bowls, and finish with a drizzle of good olive oil, along with some additional black pepper, grated cheese, and finely minced parsley.
The finished dish should be very moist with an almost soup-like consistency. For an untraditional garnish, you might consider topping the dish with a small tangle of pea tendrils.
Either way this is a wonderful dish to enjoy as you get into your spring seasonal cooking.
Be well. Eat well.
Great food done well is not overly complicated but instead prepared and presented in a straightforward way. To know how to eat is to know enough . . .