Anna del Conte

Anna del Conte's Risi e Bisi and
Polenta with canellini beans

Gluten, wheat, egg, soya and nut free; can be dairy free

Italian food guru, Anna del Conte, gets very frustrated by
those who think of Italian food only in terms of pasta and pizza. Yes, Italians love their pasta but they also love their rice, their polenta, their beans, their fish, their offal – and especially their vegetables! Click here to read more about all of these wonderful ingredients – but here are two recipes from her Classic Food of Northern Italy which are both naturally gluten-free and can easily be made dairy free.

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Risi e Bisi

Anna has given the original recipe first which is gluten-free but not dairy free, and then an alternative dairy-free version.

This dish is a good example of the excellence of Venetian Home cooking. Homely and even humble it may be, but it is one of the very few dishes that can boast patronage of the Doges. Risi e Bisi was served to the Doge on St Mark’s Day, the 25th April, when the first peas arrive at the Rialto Market. The Doges had first claim on the primizie – early crops – from the islands on the lagoon, and particurlarly the peas from the island of San t'Erasmo.

As Dino Boscorato, owner of the well known Trattoria Dall’ Amelia, put it, the Doge had the ‘ius primi bisi’ – the right not of the first night, but of the first peas! When I went to his restaurant in Mestre not long ago I had a remarkable meal as well as an interesting talk. He was very dismissive of some new versions of risi e bisi which add cream at the end of the cooking or where, instead of the stock being made with pea pods to accentuate its sweet flavour, it is made with meat, chicken or vegetable stock.

Risi e bisiThe Recipe

This recipe derives from the risi e bisi I ate at Dall’s Amelia. It is like a very thick soup – half way  between a risotto and a soup – and should be eaten with a spoon. The Venetian peas are just like small petits pois, not easy to find in this country, but nowadays you can buy sugar snap peas, which are often large but can still be eaten whole, pod and all. I find them suitable for this recipe because the pods, which go in the soup, are sweet and fleshy, and not too stringy. If the sugar snap peas are very fresh and small, you can liquidize and process the cooked pods and add the purée directly to the stock. If they are older and bigger, I advise you first to process the pods and then push them through a food mill to rid them of strings. An old version recipe adds few fennel seeds, a very imaginative and successful addition.


900g/2lb young fresh petits pois or sugar snap peas. If you cannot find sugar snaps, use the smallest peas you can find
salt and freshly ground black pepper
30g/1oz unsalted butter
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil of a delicate flavour, e.g. an oil from Liguria or Lake Garda
1 small onion very finely chopped
3 tbsp chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
225g/8oz Italian Rice, preferably Vialone Nano
½ - 1 tbsp fennel seeds, according to taste, crushed
45g/1 ¾ oz freshly ground parmesan

Top and tail and pod the peas keeping the pods and peas separate. Discard any blemished pods and wash the others. Put them in a pan and add 1.5 litres/2 ½ pts of water and 2 tablespoons of salt. Boil until the pods are very tender. Drain, reserving the liquid and process the pods. If stringy, and I find that they are usually are, work them through the small hole disc of a food mill or through a metal sieve.

Measure 1 litre/1 ¾ pts of the liquid and add to the puree. Put the mixture in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boil.

Meanwhile put the butter, oil, onion and 1 tablespoon of parsley in a stockpot. Sauté very gently for 5 minutes or so and then throw in the podded peas. Cook, stirring them constantly for 2 minutes.

Add the rice and stir to coat the grains in the butter and oil. Pour over the simmering pod stock containing  the pod puree. Mix well and bring to the boil.

Now add the fennel seeds and some freshly ground pepper and boil, covered until the rice is cooked – about 15-20 minutes depending on the quality of the rice. Turn off the heat and mix in the Parmesan and the remaining parsley.

Ladle the soup into individual soup bowls and serve immediately. Alternatively transfer the soup into a soup tureen and bring the tureen to the table, this being the way is done in Venetian homes.

Dairy-free version

Use 4 tbps of olive oil to cook the instead of the onion instead of the butter and oil.

Instead of adding the Parmesan at the end, season with plenty of pepper and the grated nutmeg and mix in the remaining parsley and the mint.

N.B. If you are lactose as opposed to dairy intolerant (or allergic), you should be able to eat the Parmesan although not the butter. The lactose in very well matured cheeses, such as Parmesan, has been almost entirely broken down so should not cause a problem. See Cheese on a low-lactose diet by dietitians Anita MacDonald and Pat Portnoi.


Polenta and Cannellini Beans - Impastoiata

PolentaThe name of this dish is descriptive. Impastare means to knead and impstoiata is a mixture similar to dough. It is one of the more esoteric polenta dishes since the dressing of stewed beans is added to the polenta while it is still cooking for a final cooking all together. It is a lovely earthy dish and very healthy too. I derived this recipe from one of my favourite books, Un Scol di Cucina Corsi (A Century of Umbrian Cooking) by Guglielma Corsi. In the original recipe the polenta is made with water but I find stock gives more flavour.

I use polenta istantanea for this dish, a polenta certainly not as good as the slow cooking sort, but far quicker to make. Here the polenta is made in stock and dressed with a lot of tomatoes, so its flavour is less important. Use a good bouillon powder if you have not got any stock ready.

Serves 5 to 6.

2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion finely chopped
1 garlic glove chopped
4 fresh sage leaves  chopped.
the needles of a 10cm/4in fresh rosemary sprig.
salt and freshly ground pepper
400g/14oz canned tomatoes, coarsely chopped with their juice.
1.2 litres/2 pints vegetable stock or 2 vegetable bouillon cubes dissolved in the same amount of water
225g/8oz polenta istantanea
300g/10oz cooked or canned cannellini beans

First make the sauce. Put in the oil, onion, garlic sage, rosemary, 1 teaspoon of salt and plenty of pepper in a saucepan and cook for 10 minutes over a low heat. Add the tomatoes and cook until the sauce has thickened and the oil come to the surface – about 20 to 25 minutes.
While the sauce is cooklng, make the polenta following the manufacturer's instructions.
Now throw the cannellini beans into the tomato sauce and mix and let them cook for 10 minutes or so.  When the polenta is done, mix the cannellini stew into it and cook the whole thing together for further 10 minutes.
Taste and check seasoning and then spoon this nourishing and tasty mixture into individual soup bowls. Pass around a bottle of your best extra virgin olive oil for everybody to drizzle a little over the impastoiata. 


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