Be Fruitful

I've always made meals out of my late summer fruit binges. And this year, I was especially captivated by Italy's traditional berry and melon risottos.

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During late summers, I become almost fruitarian. Sometimes, nearing the dinner hour, I suddenly realize that the only things I’ve eaten all day have been fresh melon, berries, nectarines, and plums.

The root of this fruity love affair is clearly my childhood summers, which I spent at my family’s open-air, roadside produce stand in southern New Jersey. My cousins and I sold fruit and vegetables in a makeshift wooden structure with hand-written signs at the edge of property owned by my father and uncle’s packing house. I worked there pretty much from the first grade, when I had a little corner where I sold little containers of bruised and overripe “seconds” under a sign that read “Bargain Table. Everything 50 cents.”

By the time I was about 12, I awoke before sunrise and — before eating breakfast — pedaled my bike a few miles over to the packing house, where we kept our produce in huge refrigeration rooms. I enjoyed whizzing down the loading dock on an electric pallet jack, and I loved the sensation of zipping into the cold and then back out into the warm summer air. I mostly worked alone, unless an onion truck had just arrived, and then one of my dad’s employees might decide he needed to “help” me, instead of unloading 50-pound bags of onions. My job was to get the pallets ready on the loading dock before my cousin arrived in his pickup truck, back from a daily run to the farms or from the produce terminal in the city.

After I had the pallets out on the dock, I’d root around the crates and baskets and boxes. This is why I didn’t eat breakfast — after all, I had this fruit smorgasbord all to myself. I might cut up a cantaloupe or honeydew or watermelon with my pocketknife, or just grab a handful of cherries or peaches, squirting juice all over my hands, then wiping it off on my t-shirt. I’d spit pits and seeds off the dock, or toss them across the lot trying to hit a truck trailer. My general thoughts were: You can’t eat fruit all day if you don’t start first thing in the morning.

At the age of 12, all seemed clear and good in the world, and I assumed fresh produce would be my life’s work. But that was not to be. My father sold out his share of the business to my uncle when I was 16, and my job at the stand no longer existed. Soon enough the stand itself was no longer, as my cousins turned it into a successful, modern brick-and-mortar market.

As I grew older, I began to think of those early summer mornings, sitting alone on the loading dock, gorging myself on fruit, waiting for the work day to begin, as quite possibly the closest moments to pure happiness I have ever experienced. Perhaps that is what I’m trying to recapture during my current late summer fruit binges. Or perhaps that’s just the writer in me trying to justify why I’ve decided to eat fruit for dinner.

In any case, I get ridiculously excited any time a fruit finds its way into a savory dish. I am willing to admit that I have unabashedly embraced all food trends involving savory fruit: grilled watermelon, pineapple in tacos, melon soups, blueberry barbecue sauce, apple slaw, that whole strawberries-in-salads fad.

One thing I’ve always loved about the Italian table is that meals so often begin with melon and prosciutto. But beyond that classic pairing, there is a whole category of savory fruit dishes that surprised me on a recent trip to the Alpine wine region of Alto Adige (or Südtirol, as its German-speaking citizens call it).

There, in the town of Appiano (or Eppan as the German speakers call it), at a restaurant called Pillhof, the waiter informed me that the day’s special was risotto ai mirtilli, or blueberry risotto, a traditional dish of Trento and Alto Adige. I didn’t even look at the rest of the menu. When the dish arrived, the rice had a bright purple hue, and was served with a tiny lamb chop on top and garnished with blueberries. I was in heaven.

When I returned home, I delved deeper into fruit risottos, and saw that this was far from a novelty dish. In my research, I found traditional recipes for strawberry risotto, apple risotto, and pear risotto, among others. I even found a contemporary risotto recipe that called for…melon and prosciutto. To anyone who loves risotto, this is probably not too shocking. Risotto, after all, can famously be made from just about anything — seafood, mushrooms, greens, saffron, truffles, wine, beer, you name it.

So, as summer winds down, I bring you three fruity recipes. As with all risotto and pasta recipes — think of these as a template. With a little experimentation, I can envision fresh honeydews or plums or nectarines in place of the berries and cantaloupe.

I know I intend to experiment a little more. After all, you can’t eat fruit all day, unless you have it for dinner, too. • 2 September 2014

Tips for making risotto

Be patient and zen-like. Risotto can take 20 minutes or more to make, and requires constant attention and stirring. You’ll notice that all of these recipes call for a little wine. The rest of the bottle is for the cook. This will help the time pass.

Make sure you add the stock to the rice little by little, never drowning your rice and never letting the liquid completely dry out.

Make your own stock (vegetable, in the case of these recipes). You will thank yourself for this.

Be sure to use the correct rice, either Carnaroli or Arborio — no Uncle Ben’s here. I highly recommend Carnaroli rice, hailed as the “king” or “caviar” of Italian rices. If you’ve only used Arborio in the past, do yourself a favor and try Carnaroli.

With risotto, the rice should be served al dente, meaning it should be tender, and should be neither too crunchy nor too squishy. Taste the rice as you go along to make sure you don’t undercook or overcook it.

Serve and eat risotto the moment it’s finished. Call people to the table as you’re finishing your final stirrings.

Melon and Prosciutto Risotto

Ingredients

6 cups vegetable stock (below)
4 tablespoons butter
½ medium cantaloupe, peeled, seeded, and coarsely grated
2 shallots, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
¼ cup dry white wine
¼ cup mascarpone
2 ounces prosciutto, chopped
Pepper

Instructions

Bring 6 cups vegetable stock to a simmer.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add cantaloupe, shallots, and garlic. Cook, stirring, until liquid is thickened, 8-10 minutes. Add rice and white wine, and cook for another 2 minutes.

Add a ladleful of the stock (about half a cup) and cook, stirring continuously, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, and stirring until each addition has been absorbed. This will take about 20-25 minutes.

Once rice is finished, stir in mascarpone and prosciutto and season with pepper to taste.

Serves 6

Recipe adapted from Cassy Vires, Home Wine Kitchen, St. Louis.

Risotto alle Fragole (Strawberry Risotto)

Ingredients

About 6 cups vegetable stock (below)
7 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
1½ cups dry white wine
8-10 medium strawberries, hulled
1 cup light cream
Salt and pepper

Instructions

Bring the stock to a boil. Melt half the butter in a large pan, add the onion, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.

Add the rice and cook, stirring, until the grains are coated in butter. Pour in the wine and cook until it has evaporated. Add a ladleful of the stock (about half a cup) and cook, stirring continuously, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, and stirring until each addition has been absorbed.

About halfway through the cooking time, mash all but two or three of the strawberries with a fork and add the mashed berries to the risotto. Set the remaining strawberries aside and continue stirring in the stock until it has all been absorbed. This will take 18-20 minutes.

When the rice is almost tender, stir in the cream and season with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with strawberry slices.

Serves 4

Recipe adapted from The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2011).

Risotto ai Mirtilli (Blueberry Risotto)

Ingredients

About 6 cups vegetable stock (below)
3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
¾ cup dry white wine
1¾ cups blueberries
½ cup light cream
Salt and pepper
Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly grated (optional)

Instructions

Bring the stock to a boil. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large pan, add the onion, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until softened.

Add the rice and stir until the grains are coated in butter. Sprinkle in the wine and cook until it has evaporated. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the blueberries and add the remainder to the pan. Add a ladleful of the stock (about half a cup) and cook, stirring continuously, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, and stirring until each addition has been absorbed. This will take 18-20 minutes.

When the rice is tender, stir in the cream and transfer to a warm serving dish. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with the reserved blueberries and, if desired, serve with pecorino.

Serves 4

Recipe adapted from The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2011).

Vegetable Stock

Ingredients

4 potatoes, coarsely chopped
4 onions, coarsely chopped
4 leeks, trimmed and coarsely chopped
4 carrots, coarsely chopped
4 turnips, coarsely chopped
4 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
8 cherry tomatoes, coarsely chopped
12 cups water
Pinch of salt

Instructions

Place all vegetables in a large pot. Pour in water, add salt, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly, then strain into a bowl or container, pressing down well on the cooked vegetables with a spoon. Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to three days or in the freezer.

Recipe adapted from The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2011).

Jason Wilson is the founding editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin).
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