BEETS RUN. Their juice stains cutting boards, reddens hands and discolors the mashed potatoes on the plate. But they are worth the mess. Beets have a wonderful, unmistakable flavor of their own--earthy but also slightly sweet--and when used imaginatively, they can brighten a meal quite vividly in ways that have nothing to do with their qualities as a dye.
One of the best, and most unusual, beet dishes I've encountered recently is a new specialty soon to appear on the autumn menus at the Remi restaurants in Santa Monica and New York--a risotto flavored (and of course colored) with beets and the great Italian red wine called Barolo.
Remi executive chef and co-owner Francesco Antonucci invented the dish. Antonucci was born in Mestre, a suburb of Venice, and learned the chef's trade working for the El Toula restaurant chain in Milan and Treviso. In 1980, he moved from Italy to the Dominican Republic as chef at the Casa del Campo resort. While he was there, restaurateur Mauro Vincenti asked him to come to work at his Rex Il Ristorante in downtown Los Angeles. "I wanted to come," Antonucci says, "but I was under contract to Casa del Campo, and I couldn't leave. When the contract was up, though, I called him and asked if he still needed me. He didn't, but he referred me to his friend Piero." Piero, of course, is Piero Selvaggio, proprietor of Valentino and Primi--and Antonucci soon found himself working as sous-chef at the former restaurant.
"I love Piero," Antonucci says now, "but I didn't like L. A., so after six months I moved back to New York." While serving as chef at the DDL Bistro in Trump Tower, he met prominent restaurant designer Adam Tihany. The two hit it off and, in 1987, opened the Venetian-accented Remi on New York's Upper East Side. (Tihany is a longtime lover of Venice who has even named one of his daughters after the city--Sarah Venezia.) Late last year, the partners closed the original Remi and started working on two new projects: One--a larger, lighter replica of the original--opened early this year on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica; the other, in a spectacular West Side location in New York, was launched in June.
Though Antonucci still spends most of his time at the New York Remi--"I like L. A. much better this time," he says, "but my girlfriend is in New York"--he actually invented his beet and Barolo risotto in Santa Monica. One evening in late summer, Jivan Tabibian, a partner in the Santa Monica Remi, asked Antonucci if he could make a risotto al Barolo --a traditional specialty of Italy's Piedmont region that was one of Tabibian's favorite dishes. "I used to make beet risotto in Venice," Antonucci says, "and I just suddenly got the idea to combine the two ingredients."
It works superbly. A risotto made only with beets can seem too strong and too markedly beety. The Barolo introduces another note and calms the beets a bit. A classic risotto al Barolo , on the other hand, can seem austere and look murky. The beets enliven it in flavor and appearance.
RISOTTO DI BAROLO E BARBABIETLO
(Barolo and Red Beet Risotto)
30 ounces water 1 carrot 1 onion, whole but peeled 1 stalk celery Salt and pepper 1 large red beet 2 tablespoons olive oil 1/2 medium onion, peeled and minced 2 cups Arborio or other short-grain risotto rice 1 cup Barolo* 1 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese or fresh, soft goat cheese
Place water, carrot, whole onion, celery, and salt and pepper to taste in a pan or stockpot and bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 2 to 3 hours.
In medium saucepan, steam beet for about 45 minutes or until very tender. Remove, cool and peel.
With knife or food processor, finely chop beet until it reaches consistency of thick puree. Set aside.
Heat olive oil in large skillet; add minced onion and cook, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes, or until onion becomes translucent. Add rice and stir continuously for 2 minutes, coating rice well with oil and butter. Add beet mousse and 1/2 cup vegetable stock from stockpot; stir continuously for 2 to 3 minutes. Keep stock simmering throughout following process.
Add Barolo and stir into rice until liquid is almost evaporated; add another 1/2 cup of stock. Continue adding stock 1/2 cup at a time, stirring continuously until each addition is almost evaporated, for about 18 to 20 minutes, or until risotto is cooked through but still al dente. (Add small amount of water to stockpot if stock seems to be running out.) Shortly before risotto is done, add salt to taste and a dash of stock for a creamy texture.
Remove from heat, and quickly stir in butter and cheese. Makes 6 servings.
*Barolo is one of Italy's greatest, and most expensive, red wines, often costing $30 a bottle or more for top-name producers and good vintage years. It is not necessary to use wines of that quality for this dish. Barolos in the $10-to-$15 range are often available, as are other wines from the same area, including Barbera d'Alba, Barbera d'Asti and various wines labeled Nibbiolo. Any of these may be used, as may California pinot noir or zinfandel.