02/19/2014 09:49 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2014

Cooking Off the Cuff: A Warming Risotto -- With Cabbage

Traditional rice dishes can hold surprises in the form of unexpected ingredients. When I made a paella using snails left over from last week's dish I wasn't being innovative at all: They're a venerable part of the Valencian repertoire. Nor was I breaking new ground when I saw that Jackie and I weren't eating that savoy cabbage in the fridge and decided to incorporate it into a first-course risotto for a group of friends. Cabbage risotto doesn't generally come to mind, but it crops up in various parts of Italy, sometimes in a vegetarian version but more often with a little meat for seasoning, most typically sausage meat or air-cured ham -- such as lightly smoked speck, which, for me, is the ideal partner for cabbage, as for so many other things.

In the Old Country, the cabbage and the rice cook together, which makes for cabbage that has almost disappeared, texturally at any rate. I wanted it soft but recognizable, so I started the dish (which would serve six as a starter and two or three as a main course) by cooking 2 two-mitted handfuls of savoy cabbage that had been cut into strips less than half an inch wide and perhaps a couple of inches long (1 by 5cm or thereabouts). This I did in 2 tablespoons (25g) of butter and some salt in the pan that I'd be using to make the risotto, over medium heat. When it had wilted and shrunk in volume but was not fully cooked, I set it aside in a bowl to cool. (You can certainly use regular cabbage, but you might want to trim the thickest parts of the leaves and cut it into finer shreds.)

In the same pan, still over medium heat, I placed another piece of butter and about two ounces (60g) of speck cut into matchsticks; when its fat became translucent I added the white and pale green parts of a medium leek that I'd previously cut into julienne shreds -- how you cut it isn't important, so long as it is sliced thin - washed and drained and seasoned with salt and black pepper. If I hadn't had a leek, I'd have used two shallots or a small onion.

When the leeks were mostly cooked and the speck had begun slightly to brown -- such browning is not usual in risottos, but here it enhances the flavor of the ham and of the whole dish -- I added a cup of risotto rice (I almost always use carnaroli), stirred it around in the butter and speck fat for a minute, raised the heat just a wee bit and poured in a quarter cup (60ml) white wine, which quickly disappeared, some evaporating, some being absorbed by the rice.

From this point, it was standard operating procedure: gradually adding lightly salted chicken stock diluted one-to-one with water (vegetable stock would have been fine), and stirring pretty much constantly, which I'm convinced enhances the viscosity of the risotto's liquid. When the rice was a minute or two from completion, I added the reserved cabbage and kept stirring, ladling in enough stock to yield a somewhat soupy dish: just on the border between eating with a fork and eating with a spoon. I checked for seasoning (the cabbage somehow made this rather salt-hungry), then vigorously stirred in a final lump of butter and just two tablespoonsful of grated Parmesan.

(I topped each portion with a few oven-toasted walnuts for crunch and additional warm flavor. They were a real enhancement, but aren't really necessary.)

The appeal of this dish is sneaky: At first spoonful, you may reach for the grated parmesan. But there won't be any on the table, because it's fine the way it is. The second spoonful, believe me, will put a smile on your face. There's a gentle sweetness in the cabbage -- and indeed in the leeks and the speck -- along with that slight funkiness that's part of the reason we love that vegetable. As noted, we ate it as a first course, but on a cold day it would be as comforting as a bowl of soup.

A Warming Risotto - With Cabbage