I’m standing outside with BFD.
He is preparing risotto.
On a charcoal grill.
It is the last day in April.
No birdies are singing on this day, however. It is snowing; a harsh wind is blowing. It is 34 degrees in Siberia With a View.
Risotto is not the quickest of preparations, in optimum conditions. And this is anything but optimum: we are freezing, huddled next to the grill like vagrants next to a barrel of burning petroleum by-products, praying the charcoal stays hot long enough for the rice to cook properly.
My chattering teeth remind me: I’m a winter cook.
As such, I am cruising into my least favorite season, foodwise — summer. A winter cook is in free-fall during the warm months of the year, unable to indulge his or her passion at full throttle.
That passion? In short: creating foods with weight, with heft. Items prepared via long and low cooking. Thick stuff, with “thick” referring not to dimension, but to character and consistency. For example: braises, preparations that spend a long time on the burner or in the oven.
Some folks use the term “comfort food” to describe this type of fare. I think “thick” is better. I’m thick, so why not my food?
Of course, it is not impossible to indulge my favorite recipes and techniques during warm spring, summer and fall months. I’ve never rejected the idea of a huge mess of heavy-dairy mac and cheese baked bubbly-brown good then devoured on a hot August day. I dive in with every bit as much gusto as I muster in December.
It’s those for whom I cook, those who eat with me, who complain when things get thick. It’s not summer food, they say.’“It’s too heavy.”
So, I need to prepare myself for summer, though on this particular spring day it is hard to imagine that summer is just ahead.
I ask, what is summer food? And how interesting is it? My preliminary answers: limited, and not at all.
Typically, summer food is lighter (seldom thick), often grilled, frequently served cold, cool or at room temp.
Perhaps, but a Bolognese does not roll well with the summer food crowd, nor does a hefty slab of lasagna. Nor does a carbonara, though I find it somewhat wimpy. There are some seafood/pasta combos that do the trick, but they are not my faves. Pasta primavera, or some variation on the theme? I’ll pass. Unless you take out the veggies, add a ton of cheese and garlic and bake it for an hour or so.
Braised pork shoulder?
Coq au vin?
Not a chance.
How about a huge pan of potatoes dauphinoise?
You gotta be kiddin’.
Schnitzel-like concoctions, all crispy bready wonderful, sautéed to golden perfection and served with spaetzle or noodles?
Forget about it.
Pork or veal shank, fork tender just out of a 375 oven after three hours, the pan sauce rich with wine and tomato? A side of cheese-spiked polenta?
In my dreams.
Almost all my choices … off limits for five months.
Since cooking for others and pleasing them is a big part of the effort in the kitchen, I need to adjust to the whims of others. Compromise will be the order of the day — not something I am terribly comfortable with, especially when the compromise cuts to what I choose to prepare.
I get antsy at the prospect of summer and an appropriate cuisine. It’s fight or flight time.
But, alas, I can’t fight it; the change of season is inevitable. And where would I flee (other than Buenos Aires where a pleasant winter balances the heat of our hemisphere’s summer)?
On this particular spring day, however, there are snowflakes in the air. A cold front and storm are making a quick passage through the area, putting frowns on the faces of the “Wow, it’s a beautiful day!” freaks. They have been driving me crazy since it became apparent that spring had arrived in Siberia With a View. You know them: the first time the temperature hits 50 they are wearing shorts and T-shirts, walking around with goofy smiles on their mugs, ripped out of their skulls on Vitamin D and making plans to do yard work in between hikes, mountain bike excursions and camping trips.
My spring outdoor work will be confined to two chores, each involving minimum time spent outside the house.
First, I’ll take the ratty cover off the gas grill on the deck, remove the grill racks and grates and give everything a thorough cleaning. There’s a pound or two of dirt and pollen in the grill and I need to Hoover it out in preparation for the first flame.
I’ll take the propane tank to the convenience store and get it filled. This is stressful: I have a vision of me and Wanda, the store attendant, engulfed in a ball of flame when her cigarette ignites stray fumes at the pump.
Second, I’ll put the cushions on the deck chairs and move the table into position for al fresco dining. Kathy enjoys sitting on the deck taking her meal in the company of insects, serenaded by the churl down the hill who has a pathological affection for his 800-horsepower weed eater and who works 12 hours a day to kill every living thing on his property. That others might like to enjoy some peace and quiet does not occur to the bozo.
Once the grill is ready, a third chore awaits — the one I will struggle to complete: changing the menu.
When I ponder acceptable summer fare, I list the desirable grillers first: pork tenderloin, marinated for 12 hours or so, browned over high heat then moved to a cooler area on the grill top to finish; high-grade ground beef (ground at home with the incredible Porkert Fleischhacker 10, complete with Czech steel components) fashioned into thick burgers then stuffed with things like a blend of blue cheese, minced garlic and sun-dried tomatoes before being introduced to heat; salmon; marinated chicken thighs; tuna; kofta; kebabs mixing the best of the flesh and vegetables.
And, I admit, grilled vegetables are pretty tasty, simply done, with a slick of olive oil, some kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. An occasional whiff of cumin or oregano doesn’t hurt. Eggplant, peppers of all kinds, squash, tomatoes (if one can locate a decent one here in the wilderness). I like grilled sweet potato and russet wedges. Smashed and grilled potatoes are something that can be gussied up to a point where they are palatable.
Speaking of potatoes, a variation of a French potato salad does a nice turn on a warm summer night.
I’ll also alter the wine regimen … somewhat.
I am a passionate fan of reds, in particular, reds from the Rhone. More specifically, southern Rhone reds. It is these southern beauties that will save me. I will forgo the Chateau Neufs for a few months, leave my hoarded bottles of Sang de Cailloux in the rack until late fall and drink other southern Rhone blends heavy on Grenache. Rosés from Tavel? OK. I have a couple bottles of a Corbieres rosé that will do the trick as well. Maybe even a few whites — grassy, citrusy whites, cool and refreshing.
But, now, while this day is more than cool, and it is anything but refreshing.
“I thought it was spring,” says BFD. He’s underdressed and he’s shivering.’“I was sure it would be warm, so I planned to make risotto, on the grill.”
We pop open a nifty Cotes du Rhone, take a couple hits and the process begins.
BFD grills boneless chicken breasts he rested overnight in a lemony marinade. While the bird cooks, the snow turns mean and granular, the wind picks up steam. I feel like Doctor Zhivago.
GB and Kathy remain indoors, trading notes on how dumb BFD and I are, while the two of us huddle near the grill. The charcoal is hot and the chicken cooks as expected. We taste. Excellent.
Then, to the risotto. BFD puts a deep cast iron skillet on the rack and heats it. In goes oil. In goes the Arborio and, when it has cooked for a couple minutes, the risotto process begins: a bit of liquid in, constant stirring, the liquid absorbed, more liquid goes in, constant stirring, absorption, liquid, stirring, etc.
It is a lengthy process and, in this case, since the two of us are freezing, our sense of time takes on an unusual elasticity: seconds become hours, hours become days.
I volunteer to stir, just to keep moving.
Suffice it to say, the risotto takes a bit longer than planned, what with the coals fighting the wind, but BFD has put together a doozy: Arborio, rich chicken stock, lots of garlic, salt, pepper. The rice starts to let go of its starch and things get creamier by the (extraordinarily long) minute. Finally, the mix teeters on the edge of done and in goes a mess of chopped fresh thyme, a mess of chopped cremini mushrooms. When the mix comes back to the simmer, and cooks a few minutes more, in goes some cream and a herd of fresh shrimp, shell on, the crustaceans marinated in lemon and oil.
Counter to the Italian model, which does not mix cheese with seafood, BFD tosses a bit of shredded Parmesan into the risotto and, as soon as the shrimp are pink, the rice is ready. Each bowl sees a hefty portion of the rice, several shrimps, some slices of chicken and a garnish of parsley. A wedge of lemon tops off the masterpiece.
It is extraordinary.
Hypothermia is a small price to pay for perfect food.
And the last gasp of winter has provided a decent summer food option for my very short list. Risotto.
In deference to the summer season, some would make it with asparagus, or fresh green peas.
I’ll sneak some sausage into the mix. That’s not too thick, is it?