This happens often.
Yesterday, someone I met found out that I am marrying a chef. She squealed and asked me, “Does he cook for you, after he comes home from work?”
Almost embarrassed at all my riches, I nodded, a little secret smile on my lips.
“Oh, you lucky girl!” she squealed, and clapped her hands. “You are so lucky.”
I know it. Every day, in some new fashion, fortune comes rushing up to meet me.
In the early afternoons, I drive the Chef to the restaurant. Lately, we have been gesturing to each new green leaf emerging, as we drive through the Arboretum. Laughter fills the car, along with rollicking music. An entire morning of reading, eating, and talking about food trails behind us, a memory on the hill where we live. An entire day of cooking lays before him, a day of writing before me, after we split off from each other. Those moments of driving are the time in between, when we are most close, and aware of how fortunate we are to have found each other. We still kiss at every stop light.
Most days, I buy him coffee, throw my arms around him one more time, and leave the restaurant after a few moments. He’s in work mode, and I’m itching to start typing. The impending time apart only makes the meeting in the evening sweeter. We have our routine, as familiar now as the feeling of holding each other’s hands in the car.
On Thursday, however, we arrived at the restaurant a little early. I wanted to take some photographs in that blue-tinged light bouncing off the lake, just outside the windows. As I bent down to take a photograph of fish, he came around the corner of the kitchen with a grin on his face.
“Do you want some risotto?”
Who’s going to say no to this?
The night before, the Chef had reveled in the pleasure of cooking a winemaker’s dinner. Once a month, or more, he tastes wine in the afternoon, swirls it around his mouth, and swallows. By the time he has finished, he already has an idea forming. The local winemaker, or representative for a company that imports great wines, trusts him to create the food that will complement the wines, perfectly. After some small pondering, he does. And then people come in, anticipating, for six courses of the Chef’s food, and wines to match each course. They leave sighing and smiling. At the end of the night, the Chef bounds out from the restaurant to meet me, his arms wide, his eyes excited. He loves making people happy with his food.
On Thursday, just past noon, he had a little food left over from the night before. He loves to feed me. He loves to see my reaction to his food. Giggling a little, he disappeared into his small kitchen. I heard sizzling and steaming. I smelled the familiar comfort of salt, stock, and butter. I sighed, my eyes tearing up a little. How did I find this man?
In a few moments, he emerged from the kitchen, grinning his sideways grin. In his hands, two large, shallow bowls. He set them down on the bar, one in front of me, and the other in front of the empty chair to my left. I looked inside. A small mound of steaming risotto, studded with artichoke hearts. Surrounding it, a sherry vinaigrette, and the first miner’s lettuce of the season. I leaned in and wolfed down the steam with my nose. Light as sun through green leaves, pungent as the earth finally giving up its smell again, peppery and yearning. It smelled like spring.
Spontaneously, I took out the camera to capture it. He’s used to me. Taking photographs, instead of diving right in, is my way of honoring the food he has prepared for me. It’s my way of saying grace.
While I snapped, he ran back to the kitchen. He came back with pan-seared sea scallops, dusted in sorghum flour.
I looked at him, free of words, only smiling. I kissed him, urgently. And then we both leaned down to our plates.
Lucky? Oh yes. I know I am.
This afternoon, we received a particularly beautiful letter from a reader. She mailed it to the restaurant, and we were grateful to read it together. After we looked at each other in astonishment, at her kindness, we went back to his kitchen, together.
He drew artichokes on his white board, he mimed putting a handful of salt into a pot, and he demonstrated how to push risotto in a pan, gently. I wrote it all down. As he started to fillet the ono he had ordered for the fish special that night, I asked him to talk. He dictated this recipe to me. I prodded him with questions. We work as a team this way. He has the history of making food every day in his hands and brain. I know how to ask him for more details. (“But how will people know when it’s done? What will it look like?”) We love this.
This recipe may seem lengthy and time-consuming. But believe me, it’s worth it. And what could be better than an afternoon in the kitchen, making up a risotto that could make someone you love feel lucky to know you?
We want you to have this recipe. (And Cari, if you are reading this, we especially want to share this with you.) I shouldn’t be the only one who can eat a lunch like this.
4 globe artichokes
1 medium-sized carrot
2 ribs celery
1 yellow onion, peeled and quartered
½ cup white wine
Cut off the top one-half inch of each artichoke. Peel off the outer, spiny leaves and discard them, until you reach the softer, yellow leaves beneath them.
Pull all the yellowy leaves off the artichokes (do not take off the heart) and put them into a stockpot.
Add the carrot, celery, onion, and white wine to the stockpot. Cover the artichokes with water. Bring this to a boil and turn down the heat to allow the leaves to simmer for half an hour. Remove from heat.
The stems and the risotto
1 lemon, juiced
3 additional lemons
1 yellow onion, peeled and fine diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon good-quality olive oil
1 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 to 2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
¼ cup heavy cream
½ cup parmigiano-reggiano
Trim the stem of each artichoke, as though you are peeling a carrot, with a paring knife or peeler. Repeat this with the other stems. Put the stems into the stockpot with the juice of one lemon.
Bring a pot of salted water to boil. (Use about one-half cup of salt to a large stockpot.) Juice the three lemons and add the juice to the boiling water, and then throw the lemon rinds into the water as well.
When the water has come to a boil, add the artichoke stems and hearts into the water. Cook for ten to fifteen minutes, or until a knife can pierce a stem easily.
Toss the artichoke stems into ice water and let them cool completely. Drain them.
Remove all the fuzzy leaves until you reach the artichoke hearts. When you reach the artichoke heart, cut it in half. Chop each half into quarters. Slice the stems into small slices. Set aside.
Bring a large skillet (about 12 inches) to heat on a burner set to high. When it has reached full heat, add the oil and butter. When the oil and butter run around the pan easily, add the onions and garlic. Sauté them on medium-low heat until the onion has turned soft and translucent, about ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the fresh thyme and cook for one minute more.
Add the Arborio rice and cook it for two minutes, stirring occasionally, until all the grains are entirely coated. Add the white wine and cook it until is reduced by one-half. (Stir the rice gently, ever so gently, by slowly pushing it or gently tossing it in the skillet. If you beat up the rice by stirring it too vigorously, the rice will release all its starches and turn the risotto glurby.) This should take about five minutes.
At this point, add the artichoke stock to the rice, a cup at a time, stirring gently. (Imagine that you are trying to put a baby to sleep with your stirring.) Stir and stir until the stock is absorbed into the rice. When the liquid is absorbed, but not dry, add more stock. Continue this process with all the stock until it is all absorbed.
Taste the rice. It should be chewy and soft, but not mushy. It should have no crunch to it. Season the risotto with salt and pepper, and taste to see if you need more.
Add the cream, the artichoke hearts and stems, and the parmigian-reggiano cheese. Stir it all gently until everything is completely incorporated.
Scoop up the risotto and place it into bowls for your eager guests.