Ask Chef Phyllis:
Several years ago, we backpacked through Northern Italy. At local homes or in little specialty restaurants, it was easy to find nutritious vegetarian dishes. The one that lingers in my mind was Riso e Formaggio, a dish baked in a casserole and served hot or cold. It didn’t have broccoli or spinach or chicken in it, although I think those could be nice additions. Since then, I have looked for a recipe to duplicate this taste in its purest and simplest form, but I found nothing that even came close. All the recipes on the Internet had canned cream soup, processed cheese, or other ingredients that I don’t want to use. I check your column frequently because you don’t use artificial ingredients. Can you help?
—Anita Carminati Griffen from Centerport Long Island, New York
I’m so pleased that you appreciate the topics I write about in my column—whole foods and good choices for better health.
So often, the perfectly simple foods of northern Italy are overlooked for the comfort foods (like pizza and pasta) of southern Italy. Arborio rice, a shorter, thicker variety grown in the Po valley of northern Italy, is probably the best known Italian specialty rice, but the country can boast of numerous other regionally grown varieties. Thomas Jefferson, who adored Italy, so loved Arborio rice that he smuggled grains of it back to America in the eighteenth century to grow on his plantation.
Unfortunately, white Arborio isn’t a whole grain, but its high starch content creates this luxuriously creamy dish. You might also want to experiment with different whole grains. I found a source of brown Arborio, but it’s not organic and probably won’t make as creamy a dish.
This recipe uses no artificial or canned or processed ingredients. It’s a one pot casserole that’s both easy and delicious. You can get more out of this dish by making a large lasagna-size pan and freezing some portions for a quick just-heat-it-up weeknight supper. Pair this dish with my Kale and White Bean Salad for the perfect protein-balanced meal.
Riso e Formaggio (Rice and Cheese Casserole)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium Anaheim pepper or ½ green bell pepper, finely chopped
2 cups water
1 cup organic Arborio rice, uncooked
1 teaspoon sea salt and black pepper
½ teaspoon grainy mustard
½ teaspoon red pepper sauce or dried red pepper flakes
2½ cups shredded mozzarella, Swiss, or sharp cheddar cheese (or a combination)
2½ cups whole milk
½ cup grated or shredded Parmesan cheese
- Heat olive oil and butter in a medium sauce pan with a tight fitting lid. Add onion and pepper and sauté until soft but not brown, about 3–4 minutes. Add water, rice, salt, black pepper, mustard, and red pepper sauce or flakes.
- Bring to a boil, stirring once or twice. Reduce heat. Simmer, covered, for 14 minutes. Do not lift the lid or stir. Remove from heat. Fluff rice with a fork, then cover again. Steam 5–10 minutes. Do not disturb.
- Heat oven to 350°F. Butter an 11×7 or 9×9-inch casserole. Layer half the rice mixture evenly in the casserole. Top with half the cheese, about 1¼ cups (excluding Parmesan). Repeat with the other half of the rice and the rest of the cheese.
- Beat milk and eggs thoroughly. Pour the entire milk-egg custard over the rice mixture and sprinkle Parmesan evenly over the top.
- Bake at 350°F for 45–50 minutes, or until it’s nicely browned and slightly puffed. Let stand for 10 minutes before cutting into 6 servings. Serve with a dark green salad.
To choose your organically grown and fresh ingredients wisely, use the following criteria:
- chemical- and hormone-free meat
- wild-caught fish
- pasture-raised, organic eggs
- whole, unrefined grains
- virgin, unrefined, first-press organic oils
- whole-food, unrefined sweeteners
- pure, clean, spring water
- sea salt
- raw and/or cultured milk and cream products
Photo by Phyllis Quinn