We are in the final days of our vacation, when things get sort of panicky and weird. The temperature has dropped and it's now colder here than in Berlin, which is no good at all. I'm wearing a very strange mish-mash of clothing (palm-frond leggings! a stained t-shirt! my mother's cardigan! white Birks!) from the vacation closet to stay warm. And in a minute, I'm heading downstairs to make our third crostata this vacation so far. But! I know what you're making for dinner tonight! Or tomorrow. Or this weekend. WHENEVER. You're making this.
I found it in yet another of my mother's cookbooks, you know, the ones with no author, the ones you'd normally see in a grocery store instead of a bookstore and pass on by without a second glance. This particular one was published by La Repubblica, the newspaper, and is part of a series on regional Italian cooking. The region in this case, Sicily.
I paged through it the other day and found about seven hundred and thirty things I wanted to make right away, but this baked rice dish stood out because it didn't require much of anything exotic, besides maybe caciocavallo cheese (which I substituted with provolone.)
You par-cook Arborio rice and dress it with olive oil and grated cheese. Then you stew together garlic, onions, bell peppers, eggplants and tomatoes and season them with basil, some red pepper flakes, salted capers and cured black olives. This mixture is layered with the par-cooked rice and more of that grated cheese and baked in the oven until the top is good and melty and brown.
It sounds sort of fussy, but the payoff is huge. We loved how elaborate it looked and tasted and yet I slapped the whole thing together just before lunchtime. Vacation lunchtime, but still - this could totally be a weeknight dinner. (I'd even go so far as to say it could be dinner party fare, but it falls apart on the plate in a way that might not be quite what you're going for when you have guests. But I don't know your life, so do whatever the spirit tells you to do.)
150 grams of cheese sounds like a lot of cheese, but it's spread out throughout the dish and seasons the rice really nicely. Plus, when you dig out a scoop of the rice, tiny filaments of cheese hang off the spoon and wiggle. YESSSSS.
Riso al Forno alla Siciliana
320 grams Arborio rice
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the dish
150 grams caciocavallo or provolone, grated
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 small onions, thinly sliced
1 yellow bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
2 small eggplants or 1 large one, halved and sliced
3 plum tomatoes, cored and sliced into thin strips
2 tablespoons salted capers, soaked and rinsed
1/4 cup cured black olives, pitted
Red pepper flakes, to taste
8 basil leaves
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the rice and lower the heat. Simmer for 10 minutes, then drain the rice. Place the rice in a bowl and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Stir in 50 grams of grated cheese. Set aside.
2. Place the remaining olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or two, then add the onions, peppers and eggplant. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Then lower the heat to low, cover and stew for 10 minutes.
3. Remove the lid and add the tomatoes. Stir well, then cover again and cook for an additional 10 minutes.
4. Remove the lid, raise the heat to medium-high, add the capers, olives, red pepper flakes and basil leaves. Stir well and cook for a few minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C. Oil a baking dish.
6. Place half the rice in the dish evenly. Distribute half the vegetable mixture over the rice evenly. Top with half of the remaining grated cheese. Repeat with the remaining rice, vegetables and cheese. Place the dish in the oven and bake for 25 minutes, until the top is a deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes before serving.