We left our tenor at the front door of the hotel and dragged our suitcases down a long, narrow hall to the front desk. Oh. My. God. What was waiting for us at the end of that hallway was worth the long flight, the dragging of bags, and any hint of confusion as to how best to get to this little hotel. Leonardo was his name, and judging from his over 6' frame, blond hair, chiseled features and long, thin fingers, I guessed him to be originally from the north. But at that moment, all I could do was to silently thank the Universe that he had migrated to Rome, and was there at that front desk.
After we signed all the necessary papers, he informed us that our room was 4 flights up - no elevator. "You're kidding....." "No." Then he flashed us a knee-weakening smile, grabbed our bags and lept up the stairs ahead of us. We tried. God knows, we tried to keep up with him. But even his sculpted beauty wasn't enough to jet us up those stairs at gazelle speed. When we arrived huffing and puffing at the door to our room, he stood there, smiling as he handed us our key. "Grazie", we wheezed.
I remember us flinging ourselves on the beds of our high ceilinged room, as ecstatic as any teenager over a heart throb. We were in ROME! The men in this city were GORGEOUS! Could we just stay here? Like, forever? I had never been to Rome before. I never wanted to leave this place. And that was before dinner! We composed ourselves before we trooped down the stairs to ask Leonardo to suggest a restaurant. He made us the first of many maps, showing us how to get from our hotel to a little trattoria a couple of blocks away. We thanked him and walked towards the restaurant in the gathering darkness.
I have never had the sense of time that I experienced in Rome. Rome wears it's history as casually as a teenager wears a watch. We turned a corner and there was a Corinthian column, sticking up by the side of the street. On the wall of the building behind it was a faded painting. Around the column were about 5 or 6 cars, all parked at crazy angles. There was no tag on the column. No label on the wall. No dates. No way of knowing exactly what this fragment of history used to be attached to. It was just a place to park, if you were lucky. I looked at that column, that painted wall and those cars, and realized that if this was your daily backdrop, there was no way you could see the world the same way as someone who was born and raised, say, in San Diego.
We pushed through the wooden double doors of the restaurant and instantly fell in love with this choice. The floors were small white tiles. The tables were old and wooden. Everyone was engaged in animated conversation. The waiters shouted orders into the kitchen. Our maitre d' greeted us like long lost cousins and showed us to a table. As soon as we saw the risotto with truffles, our choice was made.
I will never forget the look on my sister's face as she took her first bite of that risotto. Ecstasy describes it best. Of course I couldn't see my own face as I tasted truffles for the first time. The combination of creamy and earthy, with subtle hints of herbs made me forget that I had ever eaten anything good in my life. I thought I would never have anything like it again. Ever.
And then at the end of the Fancy Food Show last weekend, I managed to score TWO jars of truffle sauce. Admittedly, the sauce contained things other than truffles - things such as capers and olives - but it DID contain truffles. I decided to look for a recipe for risotto which might approximate that heavenly meal so many years ago. Memory is tricky, for sure. I have no idea if the recipe I found is even close. I do know that I didn't follow it precisely - of course. And I also know that it yielded a creamy, complex, subtle risotto, as well as a longing to return to Rome.
2 large leeks (white and pale green parts only), halved, thinly sliced crosswise (about 2 cups)
3/4 cup whipping cream
1 pound shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, cut into 1/4- to 1/3-inch-thick slices
1 large onion, halved, thinly sliced lengthwise
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted
1 tablespoon white truffle oil
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, divided
1 large onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups arborio rice or medium-grain white rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
5 cups (or more) hot vegetable broth
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons shaved or chopped black truffle (optional)
Chopped fresh parsley
Bring leeks and cream to boil in heavy medium saucepan. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until leeks are tender and cream is thick, stirring often, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Rewarm before continuing.
Preheat oven to 400°F. Toss all ingredients on rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until mushrooms are tender and light brown around edges, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes. DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Add rice; stir 1 minute. Add wine and stir until almost all liquid is absorbed, about 1 minute. Add 1 cup hot broth. Simmer until broth is almost absorbed, stirring often, about 4 minutes. Add more broth, 1 cup at a time, allowing each addition to be absorbed before adding next and stirring often, until rice is tender and mixture is creamy, about 20 minutes longer. Stir in leek mixture, mushroom mixture, remaining 2 tablespoons butter, cheese, and truffle. Transfer to large bowl, sprinkle with parsley, and serve.
White truffle oil is sold at some supermarkets and at specialty foods stores and Italian markets. Black truffles are available at specialty foods stores and from igourmet.com. A flavorful substitute for the shaved truffles is the Truffle Gatherers Sauce ($19), which can be ordered from fungusamongus.com.
I did not have leeks, so I just used onion, and no cream. I also had run out of truffle oil (NOOOO!!!), so I just used olive oil. And instead of vegetable broth, I substituted chicken broth. I used dried shitakes softened in hot water, and added the liquid as well. If I were to make this again, I would definitely use truffle oil because it is magical, not because I felt that the risotto was bland without it. I'd also consider adding asparagus tips to it. Again, not because I felt it was bland, but just because.
I am entering this post in Chris' "Kitchen of Love" event over at Mele Cotte. The ingredient I used which is considered an aphrodisiac is the wine, of course! At least, that's the official version. As far as I'm concerned, this entire dish could be considered an aphrodisiac!
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