FOR EACH GRAIN OF RICE THERE SHOULD BE A PEA (an old Venetian saying)
Risi e bisi falls somewhere between a risotto and a soup. A combination of peas and Italian short grain rice, it is a specialty of Venice where, as a harbinger of spring, it traditionally is served to the Doge at the Feast of San Marco, the Veneto’s patron saint, on April 25. Beyond those simple facts, there is little agreement about how the dish should be prepared.
First, the flatware. Marcella Hazan (Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking) writes that “Risi e bisi is not risotto with peas. It is a soup, albiet a very thick one, (which should be) runny enough to require a spoon.” Elizabeth David (Italian Food) disagrees and recommends a fork.
Second, the peas. The debate over large and mealy fresh peas or sweet little peas fresh from the freezer rages. Some say the dish can only be made with the smallest and sweetest fresh spring peas. Again, from Marcella “No alternative to fresh peas is suggested in the ingredients list because the essential quality of this dish resides in the flavor that only good, fresh peas possess.” Russell Norman (Polpo, a Venetian Cookbook) echoes her opinion “To make an authentic risi e bisi you need to use young peas, the smallest and tenderest you can find. This is not one of those dishes where frozen peas will do. Absolutely not. You must use fresh peas.”
But Nigella Lawson (Forever Summer) retorts that “unless you are using the youngest, freshest, flower fragrant peas possible then you might as well just use frozen. Once a pea has sat on a shelf and begun to turn to starch, then its supposed freshness, and thus its edginess, has gone.”
Finally, the stirring. Some make risi e bisi like risotto, ladling the stock in by spoonsful while constantly stirring. Others say such fastidiousness is unnecessary. The James Peterson recipe included here gives instructions for both frozen and the elusive fresh peas. It further suggests how other vegetables could be substituted when spring peas are not to be had. And the broth is poured over the rice and brought to an unsupervised simmer. Decide for yourself whether to eat it with a spoon or a fork…