We are on the cusp of summer and all of its abundance of fruit and vegetables. The supermarket shelves are still stocked with winter fare or imported items at exorbitant prices.
The early summer crops of peas, beans and broad beans are not ready yet. Tomatoes are insipid still and courgettes are coming from Australia.
I can't live without red peppers so I just pay the price and breathe deeply or, better yet, go to a market garden in the country and pay an almost reasonable price for them. Roll on summer, I say. I am yearning for Mediterranean vegetable medleys and long evenings on the terrace with the barbecue going.
Today's recipes are an acknowledgment of what is growing in the garden right now, or is easily available and not too outrageously expensive. There is also an acknowledgment of three wonderful forms of carbohydrate - pasta, rice and beans.
Risotto rice, risoni pasta and cannellini beans are three of my favourite Italian food items. These are all stock items in my pantry and should be in yours as well.
Cannellini beans can be used either dried or canned - it is a question of time, really.
If you start from the dry bean I think the result is better but I use both.
I always cook them, even the canned beans, in stock, either chicken, beef or vegetable with either half a head of garlic or a couple of shallots and some fresh herbs - marjoram, thyme or oregano.
These extra ingredients make all the difference and I vary them depending on what I am serving with the beans.
Cannellini is a great source of protein, minerals, fibre and B vitamins as well as containing carbohydrate and it is low in fat; soit is a great addition to a balanced diet and a good alternative to eating meat.
Risoni pasta is that tiny pasta that looks a little like rice. It is great both hot and cold, in soups and salads and I have used it here, still warm with lots of added vegetables. When you combine it with local extra virgin olive oil it is an excellent way to get all the aromatics from the olive oil.
The asparagus risotto is made with violone nano rice from the Veneto region of Italy. It is smaller than carnaroli and absorbs flavours really well. It is deliciously creamy yet keeps a firm texture. It works really well with the asparagus. You can buy it in quality stores such as Collingwood St Fresh Choice and although it is more expensive than other risotto, such as aborio, it has its own special qualities.
I would recommend buying aborio, carnaroli and violone nano and comparing the end result.
The vegetables I have selected are celebrating the new season with asparagus, baby carrots, baby cos lettuce and red pepper and the old season with red onions, cavalo nero, fennel, broccoli and my herb garden for Italian parsley, perennial rocket, marjoram and thyme.
Risoni rice with cajun spiced chicken legs
Ingredients 1 cup of risoni rice
cup of rocket leaves
cup of Italian parsley
cup of fresh basil
1 small fennel bulb
small red onion
8-10 pieces of brocolli flower, steamed until just tender
2 cloves of garlic
4 tbs of extra virgin olive oil
2 tbs of lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Parmigiano reggiano to taste
8 organic chicken legs
2 tbs of Cajun spice
2 tbs of oil
Cook the risoni in plenty of boiling water until al dente. Drain and place in a large bowl.
Add the extra virgin olive oil and let it sit until it cools. Slice all the vegetables and add to the risoni. Squeeze over the lemon juice and season well.
Meanwhile, smear the chicken with a paste of the oil and Cajun spice. Heat the oven to 180 and cook the chicken until tender.
Asparagus risotto with sauteed scallops
24 asparagus spears
1.5 cups of violone nano rice
3-4 cups of chicken stock - use good-quality fresh stock preferably.
cup of grated parmigiano reggiano
2 tbs of butter
3 tbs of olive oil
4 tbs of white wine or vermouth
Salt and pepper
Baby cos lettuce and a lemon vinaigrette
Put the stock on to heat. It should be simmering when you add to the rice.
Cut of the stalk off each asparagus spear leaving the tip and a little of the stalk. Set the tips aside and chop the stalks into small chunks.
Blanch them in boiling water, drain and keep at least aside and puree the rest in a food processor with enough chicken stock to blend to a puree.
In a large heavy bottomed pot add the olive oil and the red onion finely chopped. Add the of the stalks set aside and sauté for about five minutes. Add the rice and cook until the rice is well coated and turning opaque.
Add the wine or vermouth and cook until it evaporates. Add the stock a little at a time and cook each time until it disappears from the surface of the rice. Add more stock until it is almost used up.
Add the pureed asparagus and cook gently until the rice is cooked al dente. You want it to be a little runny so there is a good sauce with the risotto.
Add the cheese, butter and season well with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, line the asparagus tips on a grill plate, season them and splash with olive oil. Grill until just turning golden. You want the asparagus to still be crunchy, so don't overcook it.
Pat scallops dry then sauté in hot oil until golden on each side.
Serve the risotto with asparagus spears on top along with 4 scallops per person and baby cos lettuce leaves on the side tossed in a lemon vinaigrette.
Cannelini beans with roasted vegetables and anchovies
Serves 4 - you could add rack of lamb to this meal and it would be delicious or some grilled fish
3 cups of cooked cannellini beans
6 baby carrots
8 cavalo nero leaves or 5 silverbeet leaves
1 large red onion
2 red peppers
Oil for roasting
head of garlic
6-8 marjoram leaves
Soak 1 cups of dried cannellini beans overnight in plenty of water. Discard the water and cook in a large pot with head of garlic, and plenty of fresh water.
Once the beans have cooked until tender, drain off the water and squeeze the garlic flesh over the beans and add 1 cups of chicken stock and the marjoram leaves. Simmer gently.
Meanwhile, slice the baby carrots in half longways and the red onion into quarters. Sprinkle with olive oil and roast in the oven until vegetables are tender.
Cut the red peppers into halves and on another baking tray lay the pepper slices and add to each piece two to three anchovies. Bake in the oven until the peppers are tender.
Blanch chopped cavalo nero or silverbeet, drain and then saute in a pan in a little oil until wilted and tender.
Place several spoonfuls of beans on a plate and arrange the vegetables around them.
If you haven't tried red peppers and anchovies, you must - it is a fabulous combination.