Some of my favorite recipe ideas - like this one - come from eating in restaurants. Like me, you've no doubt made risotto countless times, but have you ever tried it with perch - while overlooking the lake where it was swimming just a few hours earlier? Me either, but while I was in Italy this summer, I spent a few days on Lago Maggiore, one of the beautiful lakes in Northern Italy.
On my last night there, I had the best meal of my entire trip at a restaurant called Verbano - on the small island of Isola Pescatore, located on Lago Maggiore. It's one of several islands on the lake and is oozing with charm. You can walk all its streets in just fifteen minutes but I could spend a lifetime looking at the views. All around you are the foothills of the Alps, and you can see Monte Rosa in the distance - Europe's second highest mountain.
From my table, I looked directly onto another island - Isola Bella - and the beautiful Borromeo palace, built in the 1600s.
The baroque palace is filled with precious artwork, tapestries and furniture, but the gardens surrounding it rival the building in their grandiose splendor.
In the photo below, Isola Bella and its gardens are in the foreground. The island in the distance at left is Isola Pescatore, where I enjoyed the risotto con persico and other great dishes.
As long as we're here on Lago Maggiore, let me show you another enchanting wonder along the lake - the hermitage of Santa Caterina. Legend has it that a wealthy merchant shipwrecked on these rocks in the 12th century and prayed to Saint Catherine to guide him to safety. In return, he promised to live a hermit's life, which he did, holed up in a cave here for 35 years. The existing structures, which include a monastery and a church, were built starting in the 13th century.
As you approach by boat, you can see the building clinging to the sheer cliffs of the island. You have to wonder how they achieved this engineering feat so many centuries ago.
One thing that you won't find to be a feat is making this risotto I ate for my first course at Verbano. I was able to find perch at my local fish store, but if you can't find it, you can use lots of other types of fish to achieve similar results. Flounder, sole, tilapia would all work just fine.
Start by cutting up the raw fish into small pieces, but save one nice size piece to place on top.
Poach that one small piece for a few minutes in fish broth. Cover it to keep it warm. You'll use the fish broth to cook the risotto too. I make my own anytime I cook shrimp and save it in the freezer for later use. Just take some shrimp shells, plus some onion, black peppercorns, garlic and parsley and simmer it in a pot of water. Strain it, then cool it before putting it in the freezer.
Start cooking the risotto as you do any other risotto, slowly adding a bit of broth at intervals.
In the last five minutes, add the small pieces of fish and more broth. Keep stirring until the fish is opaque and the risotto is cooked. Add minced parsley and a pat of butter at the last minute.
Garnish with the small piece of fish that you poached separately and a little cherry tomato.
The rest of the meal was equally as good if not better - including the main course of striped bass and a dreamy lemon dessert - a liqueur-soaked lemon cake resting on a pool of lemon sauce, all accompanied by a cup of lemon mousse and decorated with a lemon leaf, whipped cream and fresh currants.
On my way to the ladies' room, some of the chefs were catching a smoke outside and I asked for the cake recipe, which they graciously gave me. At a certain point, I'll post it here, but not until I've experimented in my home kitchen and whittled down the recipe from the gargantuan portion written by the chef. In the meantime, try the risotto.
Risotto Con Persico (perch)
for two servings
3 T. olive oil
2 T. butter
1/4 cup minced shallot
1/4 cup white wine
1 cup arborio rice
3-4 cups simmering fish broth (use a mixture of water and clam juice if you don't have or can't find fish broth in your store)
1/2 pound perch, cut into small pieces (cut off two larger-sized pieces to use on top as decoration)
1 pat of butter
Melt the butter with the olive oil and saute the shallot until wilted. Add the rice and stir until coated, then add the white wine. Slowly add the broth, a ladle or two at a time, stirring all the while until the rice absorbs each ladleful. It should take about 20 minutes to finish cooking the risotto. During the last five minutes, add the parsley and pieces of fish and cook through until they're opaque. Add a pat of butter and stir into the risotto. Serve in bowls with a small piece of fish and a cherry tomato on top for decoration.