Sweet, fresh peas in their pods can be hard to find, but when I spotted some in a local market I grabbed them up to make a delicious Springtime dish from the Veneto: risi e bisi, or rice and peas in Venetian dialect. Although it resembles a risotto, the technique is quite different.
Base ingredients, per person:
- 75g (2-1/2 oz) rice for risotto, preferably Vialone nano (see Notes)
- 200g (7-1/2 oz) peas, shelled
For the soffritto:
- 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
- 50g (2 oz) pancetta, finely chopped
- A few sprigs of parsley, finely chopped
- 1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped (optional)
- Butter and olive oil
For the pea shell broth:
- Shells from the peas
- 1 medium onion, sliced
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
For the mantecatura:
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Shell your peas but don’t throw the pods away. Rinse them and put them in a stockpot with a sliced onion and two sliced carrots, a pinch of salt and just enough water to cover. Simmer for a good half hour or more until you have a flavorsome broth.
Now make a soffritto with very finely chopped onion, pancetta and parsley (a food processor makes short work of the task) gently sautéed in butter and a bit of olive oil. (Some recipes call for a bit of garlic) When the onion is soft and translucent, add your shelled peas and a ladleful of the pea broth. Cover and gently simmer the peas over low heat until they are almost tender.
Now add the rest of the broth and the rice—preferably Vialone nano but Arborio will do in a pinch—and continue simmering until the rice is tender, stirring from time to time. Add more broth or water if the rice dries out—but this is not a risotto where you should be adding liquid little by little. Remove from the heat and stir in a nice portion of freshly grated parmesan cheese and another nut of butter, continuing the stir until the cheese is entirely incorporated and the rice has taken on a nice, creamy consistency. Serve immediately. The dish should be rather liquid and flow easily, all’onda or ‘like a wave’ as they say in Italian, the typical of the rice dishes of the Veneto. Some versions are even wetter, almost a soup.
I am usually a fan of frozen peas, but for risi e bisi only fresh peas will do, not only because you won’t have the pea pods for making the broth—which gives the dish its characteristically deep pea flavor—but also because frozen peas cook much too fast, so they will be entirely done long before the rice is. But if you really must use frozen peas, I would opt for puréeing some of the peas for extra flavor, and using meat or vegetable broth; use a ratio of peas to rice of about 1.5:1.
There are some variations on the theme, as is usually the case with these mythic dishes, but the recipes you will find are remarkably consistent. The cookbook of the Italian Academy of Cuisine gives a second recipe which has you adding the broth ladleful by ladleful, like you would for a risotto. The book explains that risi e bisi is typical of the Lumignano, a mountainous area in the province of Vincenza, while the latter variation was much in use in Venice during the Doge’s festivities, although Padova claims to have invented the dish.
Other variations include adding the peas only after the rice has cooked for about 10 minutes or so, for which you will need very tender, young peas, since they will only cook about 10 minutes total. You can also use some of the peas or the pods and purée them, as in this lovely rendition by my foodie friend and professional chef Carmelita of the Bologna-based Cook Italy cooking school, a technique which lends a lovely green color to the dish and gives it an even more intense pea flavor. Some recipes call for adding the chopped parsley at the end, as part of the final mantecatura, rather than as part of the soffritto. Some recipes call for prosciutto rather than pancetta. And, if you like, you can use meat broth in which you simmer your pea pods rather than water, which will produce a richer dish but less purely pea flavored.
The dish is easily made vegetarian simply by omitting the pancetta, and can be ‘veganized’ by using oil instead of butter and omitting the cheese—although at that point you are getting rather far afield from the original.
As noted, the rice to use when making risi e bisi is Vialone nano, a variety that is native to the Veneto, more specifically to the area known as the Bassa Veronese, the plains that extend south from Verona. I’ve raved about this rice before, and it’s excellent for all kinds of risotto, but it is practically essential for this dish.