We met Antonia Allegra years ago in San Diego when she was Food Editor of the San Diego Tribune. Prior to that she’d risen through the ranks of local cooking instructors and magazine food writers, placing emphasis on fresh farmers’-market shopping, international cuisine (especially Italian, her heritage), interviews with great home cooks, and always—always—a bonhomie and generosity toward all who love food.
Fast forward to today, more than three decades later, we still feel fortunate to know “Toni” as a friend who has been at the center of the culinary world most of her life—especially through her role as launcher of our Cocina que Canta cooking school here at the Ranch. She is also founder of the Symposium for Professional Food Writers, which will convene again this year—its 23rd session. (Get the details on Facebook.) More than 200 books have been conceptualized, coached, and “come out of the oven” by attendees of the Symposium, as well as innumerable blogs, apps, and video careers, either online or television.
Her other achievements include heading up her own San Diego cooking school in the ’70s and ’80s, then creating the School for American Chefs at Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley with chef/author Madeleine Kamman as the star teacher. She was also a member of the launch team for the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in her town of St. Helena. Three food/wine/lifestyle magazines have been born by "Toni," — Napa Valley Tables, Appellation, and VINE Napa Valley. The point about this culinary professional is that she delves deeply into whatever she undertakes and exudes enthusiasm to all about bringing folks together around the joys of the table.
She lives in a house set on a tree-shaded hillside in Napa, and although it isn’t literally IN a tree, we agree: it is her wonderful “Tree House”—with multitudinous decks, stairs, rooflines rising organically through the treetops. The last time we spoke with her we asked for a favorite family recipe that echoes her Italian roots. It’s an honor to share it with you here: another testament to the best way to honor both good health and family traditions—just walk into the kitchen and start cooking!
Antonia Allegra says:
I was raised on risotto, being told that northern Italians and Swiss-Italians choose rice as their staple since they have space for growing rice, rather than the vast areas needed for wheat as in growing grounds south of Rome where pasta is more prevalent. This recipe brings immediate memory of the ’50s, when our mother, Antonette Delfina Lidia Maria Laiolo Lastreto, sautéed chopped onions in butter with a bit of olive oil in her broad cast-iron pan, then threw in handfuls of ‘converted’ rice, 'One for each person at the table, and two for the pan.'"
Let's recall that supermarkets of the ’50s and ’60s did not offer true arborio rice, so popular in Italy as a risotto base. Today, arborio and other natural rices are available everywhere, so I have shifted to using arborio. And Mamma and her mother—our Nonna (grandmother)—thought they were being ‘modern’ by using canned beef bouillon as the liquid to soak the cooking grain. Today, I make a quick chicken broth with water and some white wine, simmering the bones of a pre-cooked chicken, plus batutto, which is a chopped mix of carrots, celery and the onion I mentioned."
An important note: Never cover the risotto as it cooks. This is a key difference between steaming rice and making risotto."
As for the necessary saffron to prepare this dish as it is served with mushrooms in Milan, I use just a small knife-tip of ground saffron, adding it to the last addition of stock and wine, and then pouring it into the pan. The tan arborio takes on a soft golden tone. This makes a perfectly delicious risotto, ideal hot or as a base for a cool salad, which I name in honor of our Nonna Delfina Laiolo and her warm smile."
from Antonia Allegra's tree house kitchen
Serves 6, generously
For the rice:
1/3 cup olive oil
2 Tablespoons butter, unsalted (1/4 stick)
1 cup (7 ounces) arborio rice
1/2 cup dry vermouth
1 cup sauvignon blanc (or other dry white wine)
4 1/2 to 5 cups chicken broth (homemade, if possible), heated
Generous knife-point of ground saffron (or pinch of saffron stems)
Freshly-ground black pepper
Fresh thyme, two generous pinches
For the mushroom topping:
4 tablespoons butter, unsalted (1/2 stick)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, sliced and chopped
2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 pound white or button mushrooms (or other), sliced
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, unsalted
1/2 to 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano cheese
1. Rice: In a medium pan, ideally cast iron, heat the olive oil and 1/4 stick of butter over medium heat. Add the rice all at once, stirring about 4 minutes as the oil soaks into the rice grains. Then add the vermouth (an aperitif based in herbs), cooking until almost evaporated. Next, stir in the wine and about 1 cup of the chicken broth, still stirring until the liquid is absorbed, about 2-3 minutes. Continue stirring in the broth, about 1 cup at a time, until it is almost absorbed before adding more.
Into the last cup of heated broth, stir the saffron, which will change the liquid's color. Strain if necessary due to saffron stems, then pour this last amount of broth into the rice and continue stirring. Test for al dente: risotto will be done when it is just a bit "bitey," after about 16-20 minutes, depending on the rice. Taste and add salt, pepper and thyme to your preference.
2. Mushroom topping: Meanwhile, prepare brown butter topping: in a medium pan (cast-iron skillet preferred), melt the other half-stick butter and add chopped onions and garlic and cook until almost translucent. Then stir in mushrooms and a bit of salt. Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring occasionally until mushrooms and onions are tender and brown. Set aside.
3. Final touches: Spoon the finished risotto onto a platter or into individual bowls. Sprinkle with the sautéed mushrooms and Parmigiano cheese.
BUTTER OPTIONS: During finishing, melt 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter. Cook over moderate heat until brown and slightly bubbling, about 4 minutes. Pour the browned butter over the rice along with the mushrooms and Parmigiano. Too much butter? Drop this option as well as the butter in step 1.