Lidia Bastianich strides into my kitchen, ties on a bright-red apron with her name in big letters across the top, and quickly takes command. "I can always find my way around a kitchen," she says after washing up and settling in at the little prep counter. "So," she says, placing her hands on her hips, "you want to start with the risotto?"
Lidia came to cook in my humble kitchen the other day as part of the tour for her latest cookbook, Lidia's Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine (Knopf, 2015).
It could have been intimidating to have such a superstar stand at my stove. With 13 cookbooks, her own award-winning television show, seven successful restaurants, a line of pastas and sauces, a winery in Italy, and the empire of Eataly marketplaces, Lidia, 68, is a powerhouse even among celebrity chefs.
Most contemporaries at her level offer the press 15 minutes on the phone. Lidia gave me her whole morning and a master class on mushroom risotto, one of 400 recipes in the new book.
She is just as warm, encouraging, and instructive as she is on television. But in person, I would add one more adjective: empowering. "You taste it - the cook must always taste. You tell me what you think," she says as though I am an equal partner.
The first thing she has me taste is the stock, "to see where you are starting from." I was instructed to have the stock simmering in a saucepan when she arrived, which I had done. But since she is tasting it too, I'm forced to confess: It's not homemade.
"It's not bad," she says. "It'll be fine."
No reprimand, no rebuke, not even a sniff of food snobbery. Lidia is my kind of cook: practical.
We get the onions sautéing in a Dutch oven, and she starts chopping the mushrooms. The recipe calls for porcini, but I couldn't find them, so I bought shiitakes.
Once again, she is adaptable: "That's good," she says. "I think that is what most American cooks will use." Any mushrooms or even a mix will work, she explains, but she endorses my shiitakes.
As we proceed, she imparts her wisdom about how to build the flavor, the creaminess, and the perfect texture of this classic Italian dish.
Use a pot that is open and wide and heats evenly, like a cast-iron Dutch oven.
Measure out the salt that you need in a little bowl next to the stove. "Then work from there. You can stop short or go on, tasting as you go."
Salt each ingredient as you proceed. "Rice by itself is really not very flavorful. It is starch, so you have to build layers."
Use arborio or short-grain rice. Run your fingers through it. There should not be any "flouriness" - that means the rice is old and starting to break down.
Don't wash the rice, or the kernels will begin to open up and won't cook properly.
The rice must first be "toasted," coating the outer of each kernel and forming a capsule to prevent it from absorbing too much liquid too fast and possibly breaking down. "It should not change color, but you will hear a kind of a clickety-clack after a few minutes, and that will tell you it is toasted."
Add the wine all at once, and stir constantly until it is evaporated. You are balancing the starchiness of the rice with the acidity of the dry wine. (I had half a bottle of week-old wine in the fridge - but this was Lidia. Should I open a new one?) "Absolutely use your leftover wine," she says. "But never use cooking wine."
The stock must be hot. Ladle in enough to just cover the rice, and then stir around the edges of the pan until it is absorbed. Repeat, adding more stock for the next 15 to 20 minutes, until the rice reaches the consistency you want. The gradual addition of stock draws out the starch in the kernels a bit at a time. When it is released into the warm liquid, it forms a creamy texture.
Did you learn this technique cooking with your grandmom in Italy?, I ask her.
"Well, I kind of deciphered it," Lidia says. "She just did it. I knew how to do it, but I had to reason out exactly how and why it worked, to explain it."
But she does have beautiful childhood memories of living with her Grandma Rosa and Grandpa Giovanni in the little country town of Pula. "They produced all the food that we ate," she says. "We had chickens and ducks and goats. That place was idyllic for me.
"I was Grandma Rosa's little assistant, and I loved it. Milking the goats and helping to make ricotta, collecting the still-warm eggs and helping to make fresh pasta - these were all my jobs," Lidia wrote in the introduction to her book.
And, of course, they had a garden and harvested seasonal bounty. "Grandma would send me to the garden to get peas or string beans. I learned about ripeness and when to pick. But those flavors - they were really pure and unadulterated. That was my reference library. I collected all of that, and, even to this day, I refer to that. When I cook, I look for that flavor. Sometimes I find it, and sometimes I don't."
Speaking of great flavors, are you going to bring Eataly, the artisanal Italian food and wine marketplace, to Philadelphia?
"We are thinking about it at some point," she says, but not before 2017. In addition to the markets in New York, Chicago, and Sao Paulo, she says, they are opening in Boston and the World Trade Center in 2016, and Los Angeles and Toronto are on the agenda for 2017. Philadelphia is not yet verified.
Meanwhile, Lidia believes we can finally stop stirring the risotto. "This is about done for me, but you taste it and see what you think," she says to me. I quickly concur that the rice is soft and creamy, and she embarks on the final step of whisking in butter and grated cheese.
Then she wants me to try it again. I take a bite. I can taste every layer of flavor, the onion, shallot, mushroom, wine, and, finally, the buttery cheese finish, all perfectly built into a creamy texture. It is sublime. "Wow," is all I can muster. "This is really, really good."
"Oh, good," says Lidia, again as though my opinion truly mattered. And then, before I know it, she is offering a taste to an even less-discriminating palate - our dachshund, Rocky.
"Do you like it?" she asks. He is so thrilled, he is eating the paper towel on which she served it. I am sure he would levitate like the dog on the old Quick Draw McGraw cartoon if he could.
"He was barking at me when I came in," Lidia says. "But I have a friend now."
Catch "Lidia Celebrate America: Home for the Holidays" at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. on WHYY.
Creamy Mushroom Risotto
Makes 4 to 6 servings
6 1/2 cups hot chicken or vegetable stock
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup minced onion
2 tablespoons minced shallots
12 ounces fresh porcini mushrooms, thickly sliced (or sub shiitake or other mushrooms)
2 cups arborio or carnaroli rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits, at room temperature
1/2 cup freshly grated Grana Padano
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Bring the stock to a bare simmer in a medium saucepan. Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium Dutch oven or large straight-sided skillet, and sauté the onion and shallots until golden. Add the mushrooms, and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove mushrooms and set aside. To the same pan, add the remaining olive oil and the rice. Cook and stir to coat the rice with oil, until toasted but not colored, about 3 minutes. Pour in the wine, and cook until evaporated, about 2 minutes.
2. Add ½ cup of the hot stock and the salt. (This step varies from Lidia's prep with me, where she salted each ingredient separately.) Cook, stirring constantly, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Continue to add hot stock in small batches (just enough to moisten the rice completely), stirring constantly to help absorb the liquid, until the rice mixture is creamy and al dente. With the last addition of the stock, return the mushrooms to the pot, and stir and cook for an additional 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the risotto from the heat, beat in the butter and then the cheese, season with pepper to taste, and serve immediately.
3. Porcini is the ideal mushroom for this recipe, but any mushroom or mixture of mushrooms will yield a delicious risotto.
- From "Lidia's Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine" (Knopf)
Per serving (based on 6): 657 calories; 24 grams protein; 83 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 20 grams fat; 20 milligrams cholesterol; 731 milligrams sodium; 16 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
4 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
Juice of 1 large lemon, freshly squeezed
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium celery root, peeled and julienned
1 large Granny Smith apple, julienned (skin on)
One 5-ounce package baby arugula
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the anchovies and lemon juice to dissolve the anchovies. Whisk in the salt, and season with pepper. Whisk in the olive oil to make a smooth dressing. (Or process in mini food processor and add to the bowl.)
2. Add the celery root and apple, and toss to coat well in the dressing. Add the arugula and walnut, and toss lightly just to combine. Serve immediately.
- From "Lidia's Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine" (Knopf)