The Presence of the Absence

John Thorne, author of Pot on the Fire: Further Exploits of a Renegade Cook, describes his hesitation toward, introduction to, and love affair with riso in bianco.

© Javier Lastras

Despite the fact that northern Italy’s cuisine is built on rice, it is surprisingly rare to come across what, in other rice-centered cuisines, is often the focal point of any meal for both rich and poor: plain steamed or boiled rice. This is because the Italian way of showing respect to the central starch is to serve it separately, traditionally as the first course.

Here, pasta points the way: it’s impossible to imagine a bowl of plain boiled spaghetti being set on the table, no matter what else is being served. And this is also true of rice. Consider the recipe for “Rice as a Side Dish” in Pellegrino Artusi’s classic Science in the Kitchen and The Art of Eating Well (1891):

To avoid using too much broth, first balance the rice in water, and then finish cooking it in chicken broth. Make the rice firm and when nearly done, flavor it with butter and a little Parmesan cheese. If you are using (half a pound) of rice, bind it with one egg, or better still with two yolks as you remove it from the fire.

If you are serving the rice with a stew of milk-fed veal or veal chops, rather than with boiled chicken, in addition to the ingredients mentioned above, add two or three tablespoons of spinach which you have boiled and passed through a sieve. In this way our rice will be green and have a more refined flavor.

In Italian cooking, it seems the simplest starch dish has to restrain itself from becoming the entire meal. And with so many Italian rice dishes already heading down the road that leads to risotto, you have to admire the few plain rice dishes that have stubbornly refused to do so. The two peculiar qualities of Italian rice that make a risotto so unique—the ample starch that provides its luscious creaminess and the resilient interior that resists being cooked to mush—can be utilized more simply or individually. For instance, a few handfuls of the rice can be used to thicken soups or cooked into a savory porridge, or a large amount can be tossed into boiling water until the starch is cooked away, leaving behind the pleasingly chewy center of the rice kernel. Such riso al dente is treated like pasta, drained and then tossed with a small amount of sauce.

According to Gioietta Vitale in Riso: Undiscovered Rice Dishes of Northern Italy, such dishes fall under the loose rubric of riso in bianco. In Italian, bianco has two meanings: “white” and “blank,” or “empty.” Consequently, in culinary parlance, the term in bianco not only means “unadorned” or “served plain” but implies additionally an absence that is itself a kind of presence (as in the suggestive phrase “blank check”).

This absence can be literal—in bianco is often used to indicate that tomatoes have been left out of a dish that usually includes them, not in an attempt to cheapen it but to make it into something different. However, it can also mean something a little more metaphorical, as Biba Caggiano explains in Italy al Dente:

Italians turn to mangiare in bianco when they are a bit under the weather, when they want to lighten up on their diet, or when they have partied a bit too much the night before. It is believed that a plate of pasta or rice, dressed only with a bit of fresh butter and cheese, restores body and mind. Certainly, it is a basic comfort food.

It was Matt who brought riso in bianco into my life. She had first encountered it back in the early seventies, reading Elizabeth David’s evocative account in Italian Food. Then, in Marcela Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cook Book, she came across a simple version in which the boiled rice was tossed with butter, torn basil leaves, shredded mozzarella, and plenty of grated Parmesan. However, it wasn’t until Hazan’s second book, More Classic Italian Cooking, appeared with a variant of the original recipe—in which ribbons of parboiled Savoy cabbage were sautéed in olive oil with minced garlic and tossed with the cooked rice along with mozzarella and Parmesan—that the dish became a regular part of her cooking. Not only was it surprisingly good with the cabbage, it positively invited improvisation, drawing to it whatever was in season or especially appealing at the produce stand. By the time we began to live together, she had made it with, among other things, tomatoes, fennel, zucchini and asparagus.

It was with asparagus that Matt first prepared the dish for me. And to this day I wonder why she was ever willing to cook for me again. I can’t think of another meal whose making has filled me with so much dismay or brought about so much impulsive acting out. This wasn’t because the resulting dish wasn’t any good—on the contrary, it was delicious—but it was a deliciousness achieved in a way that had me transfixed with dread.

First, a lifetime of acute asparagus deficiency had rigidly shaped my cooking of that vegetable: if necessary I would peel it. I would even trim away obviously dry and woody ends, but otherwise I always cooked the whole spears—so that I could gnaw off everything edible. Matt, on the other hand, working up from the butt, found the point where the spear would easily snap in two and then discarded the lower part. When I realized what she was doing, I couldn’t keep myself from snatching these from the refuse pile and cooking them separately. Then, while she continued her work at the stove, I sat at the kitchen table, sullenly sucking at my collection of cellulose-infarcted discards.

And this wasn’t all. I had long ago perfected a method of cooking asparagus in a contained environment that allowed no flavor mote to escape. Incredulously, I watched Matt blithely toss the spears into a huge pot of boiling water as if they were strands of pasta, letting all that asparagus flavor leach away.

Then came the final straw. The cooked asparagus was removed from the pot, to be replaced there with the risotto rice. I could barely stand it. This was rice for which we’d paid a premium, supposedly because of its raison d’être—the thick, creamy, delicate sauce produced by all that lovely starch, starch that would now be completely dissolved. As I stood there staring disconsolately, unbelievingly, into the pot, what I saw there was not cooking water but a kind of elemental cream of asparagus soup.

So while Matt was busy tossing the rice and asparagus pieces together in a buttery, eggy, lemony sauce, I was at the kitchen sink, blowing fiercely on a mug of boiling-hot, starchy, asparagus-flavored liquid that I had retrieved as the rest went swirling down the drain. By the time we sat down to supper, I had already made a first meal out of the garbage for myself.

A writer who can’t discard a sentence—however cleverly crafted—for the good of the piece is a writer who has lost (or has never gained) control over his writing. The same is true of a cook. I knew this, but to act on it I had to overcome a fiercely stubborn resistance to “wasting” anything desirable, a resistance that was, in fact, a manifestation of my fear of deprivation.

Slowly but surely, I was won round, Matt was vindicated, and riso in bianco found a place in our everyday dating. What I was to discover was that cooking risotto rice like pasta didn’t make it the same as pasta. With its starch integument boiled away, Italian rice develops a honeycombed texture that sponges up the sauce that on pasta could only be a coating. This quality can be drowned in a sea of sauce—but there is no better way to set off a small amount of a rich and delicate one than to toss it into riso.

Also, of course, it tastes like rice, and there are certain foods and assorted aromatics that make a match with rice as they do to with nothing else. In my opinion asparagus is better with rice than with pasta and so are, for instance, fresh peas, ham, chicken livers, and shrimp. Sauté some celery in butter, stir it into riso in bianco, and you’ll never think the same way about that vegetable again. And rice is to sage what pasta is to oregano: the starch that gives that herb its reason for being. Our rice dishes are less rich in butter and cheese—although anyone succumbing to Elizabeth David’s siren call to eat their riso in bianco “with plenty of grated Parmesan cheese and an unlimited quantity of good fresh country butter” will receive no scolding from us.

Riso in Bianco (Basic Recipe)

3 or 4 quarts water

pure salt

1/2 pound (about 1 cup) Italian rice

First, it is helpful to note that the rice is added to the water a poggia—in a thin, steady stream so that the water continues to bubble throughout. A simple way to accomplish this is to put the rice in a pitcher and, tilting this carefully over the cooking pot, slowly sprinkle the kernels out of the pouring spout into the roiling water. And do remember that the purer the cooking water, the more the taste of this delicious rice will come through.

Bring the water to a boil in a large pot and salt as you would to cook pasta. Pour in the rice a pioggia and stir once with a big wooden spoon. When the water returns to a rolling boil, lower the heat and simmer the rice until it is just al dente, 15 to 18 minutes. When the rice is done, drain it gently in a sieve or colander, letting the liquid run out of its own accord but not shaking it dry.