Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943

If you grew up with Italian-American grandparents, as I did, foods such as ricotta cheese on toast for breakfast or tripe in red sauce for lunch were not uncommon. When it came to Thanksgiving, however, my grandparents could have arrived on the Mayflower. Gathered around the Thanksgiving table - heaped high with roast turkey, stuffing, gravy, candied sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, green beans, cranberry sauce and apple and pumpkin pie - our family could have modeled for a Norman Rockwell painting. 

When we arrived at my grandparents' house on Thanksgiving day, however, there was no smell of roasting turkey or freshly-baked apple pies. Instead, the house was filled with the sweet aroma of tomato sauce and chicken broth. That's because my grandmother left the preparation of all the traditional American dishes to the care of someone else's grandmother - Mrs. Bonani. Along with her husband, Mrs. Bonani ran a small, local catering business. On Thanksgiving Day, dozens of Italian families lined up talking and laughing while the delicious smell of turkey - missing from their own kitchens - filled the neighborhood. 

Traditions come in many forms so it doesn't seem odd to us that when the family reminisces, we all agree that no one has ever made better turkey, stuffing or gravy than Mrs. Bonani. Sooner or later, however, one of us will always say: "Yes, but the best thing of all was Grandmom's risotto."  

It came to the table steaming hot accompanied by a bowl of my grandmother's homemade red sauce and a dish of sauteed chicken livers. Amid admonitions of "leave room for the turkey," we heaped the rice onto our plates, patted it flat with our forks to cool it a bit,  and then topped it with chicken livers, sauce and lots of freshly-grated parmesan cheese. 

Risotto is not difficult to make, but it does require time and attention. So unless you have a Mrs. Bonani to cook your Thanksgiving dinner, you may want to try it on another day. Here's the recipe. Bon Appetito!


Risotto with Red Sauce and Chicken Livers
1 lb chicken livers
2-3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the livers
2 tablespoons finely-chopped onion
2 cups of Arborio or Carnaroli rice
3 1/2 cups chicken broth
2-3 cups of your favorite tomato sauce, plus extra to pass.
1/2  cup of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
salt, if needed

1.  Chop chicken livers and saute in olive oil until tender. Don't overcook.

2.  Bring the broth in one pan and the red sauce in another to a steady simmer. 

3.  Put olive oil in a large heavy pot and saute chopped onion over medium heat until it is translucent. Add the rice and stir quickly until the grains are well coated.

4.  Add 1/2 cup (two or three ladles full)  of the steaming chicken broth and cook the rice, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until all the liquid is gone. Never stop stirring and stir completely over the bottom and sides of the pot or the rice will stick. 

5.  When the chicken broth is absorbed, add 1/2 cup red sauce. Continue adding broth and sauce in alternating order, adding slightly more broth than sauce until the rice is completely cooked. 

6.  After about 20 minutes, taste the rice. It will begin to be tender, but the center of the grain will still be white and starchy. At this point, add half the sauteed chicken livers and more liquid. Continue cooking as above. It usually takes about 30 minutes to cook the rice to perfection. To test, bite into a rice kernel.  At the moment that the white "core" disappears, the risotto is finished. (My grandmother usually cooked this risotto a bit longer so that the rice was softer than a usual risotto. You can take your pick.) Be sure that when you are finished, the rice is not dry, but rather saucy.

7.  About two minutes before the rice is done, add all the Parmesan cheese.

8.  Add the remaining cooked chicken livers to the extra red sauce. Pass at the table, along with more Parmesan cheese.  


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor