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Just in time for summer: A sweet twist to risotto with peaches

Just in time for summer: A sweet twist to risotto with peaches
A sweet risotto recipe for Evan Kleiman's latest Cucina Italiana column. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

At its best, risotto is an enticing bowl of perfectly cooked, just tender grains of rice — still full of textural integrity, with a characteristic yielding creaminess. The classic Italian dish most resembles a mash-up of porridge and rice pudding. And even though it’s summer, risotto can be a lovely way to either start the day or combine dinner and dessert into an unexpected one-pot meal. Unexpected? Yes, at least a bit, because this risotto isn’t savory. Instead it’s a showcase for the luscious fruit of summer.

There was a period in my 20s when two of my closest friends moved to Milan, Italy, which became my center of gravity when I would visit. It meant getting an in-depth education on arborio and carnaroli rice — the special starchy product of the Po Valley in Lombardy that creates the creaminess-without-cream that we all love in a bowl of well-made risotto. I became obsessed with rice for the first time in my life, tasting variation after variation on the theme of risotto alla Milanese.

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And then one day, maybe it was at La Latteria in Milan, I ordered risotto alla Parmigiano con aceto balsamico.

This was the first time I tasted balsamic vinegar of any kind: the actual real thing. (My translation: before the bastardized everyday condiment, made from wheat and sugar but called balsamic vinegar, took over America. They are as alike as a beat-up Yugo and a Rolls. But I digress.) Anyway, the rich mouthfeel of the rice mixed with the complex tart sweetness of the vinegar was a startling combination that I wanted to have again. But real balsamic vinegar — the stuff that’s $150 a bottle — is a rare aged thing with layers of flavor and a mellow, barely sweet acidity. I couldn’t let it go. But I couldn’t afford it either.

So I shelved that idea until a later trip — this was in the early ’80s — when I saw that chefs were beginning to experiment.

It was the time of Gualtiero Marchesi , the Milan-born chef considered the founder of modern Italian cuisine, and nuova cucina. To explain: Previously Italian cuisine had been so codified and tied to regional traditions that it was possible to visit a city decades apart and have identical meals in the same restaurants where nothing on the menus had changed.

So I tasted a risotto alle fragole, risotto with strawberries. It was still a savory dish, made with Parmesan and onions, but the strawberries were added as a sweet-tart note. The dish was a little weird, a little wonderful — and had a similar pull to that subtle, sweet acid of balsamic that was haunting me. And I realized that fruit could be the sweetness I was searching for to pair with the creamy bowl of rice.

So when I got home, I made the leap to a dessert version — using sweet wine, no Parmesan or onions, and adding a bit of sugar and milk to a cooking liquid that was now water, not broth. It clicked. The savory element was still present in the starchy rice itself, but with the addition of just a small amount of sugar there was a link to the comfort of a bowl of rice pudding — served warm and tasting Italian-ish — with that bit of acid from the berries.

One of the great joys of having a restaurant for so many years, as I did, is the opportunity to vary dishes as you make them over and over. They become like kitchen templates — which is how I began to see this idea of sweet risotto.

Over the years I’ve been inspired by the changing fruit in the markets with varying degrees of success. Some favorites were pureed Blenheim apricots swirled into the barely sweet, hot rice or even better, roasted sweet cherries with their juices spooned over the creamy grains.

Years ago, Faith Willinger, an American food writer living in Italy, characterized my cooking as Italian from the region of California — which I took as a great compliment. Which is to say that the canvas of a bowl of risotto is perfect for highlighting seasonal fruit.

The dish really came together when I decided to use peaches — for me the queen of summer fruit


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The dish really came together when I decided to use peaches — for me the queen of summer fruit — which have a rounded mellow sweetness with a hit of good acid. In the Italian kitchen they’re often paired with Amaretti di Saronno, the famed cookies of Lombardy, the same region where arborio rice comes from, and chocolate, often the final element added to peaches with amaretti. (Perhaps peaches are paired in desserts with almonds in a reference to the tiny kernel in their pits that harbor minuscule amounts of cyanide and the unmistakable scent of bitter almonds. Amaretti di Saronno are made with these kernels. My translation. I watch a lot of BBC police procedurals.)

So there you have it: a lovely bowl of rice studded with shards of chocolate and topped with the season’s stone fruit and crumbled amaretti.

And if you have an InstaPot, that small miracle of a multi-cooker, you already know how marvelous a tool it is to make risotto. Just cut the liquid in the recipe to a total of four cups for the two cups of rice. Which means that, in the heat of summer, you don’t even need to stand over a hot stove to make it. And, happily, you can use all milk if you wish.

Kleiman ran Angeli Caffe for 27 years. She's the longtime host of KCRW-FM's "Good Food" and a member of the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America.

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