Guest Chef Chas La Forte
The preparation of Risotto is a learned art. This traditional Italian dish has a series of seemly simple steps that require both a patient focus and a sense of timing to get right. This is a dish that takes practice; while each Risotto experience may be a little better than the last one, it usually takes several attempts to really understand and perfect it. Chef Chas La Forte, of Salvatore’s Italian Steakhouse in Las Vegas, provides us with a tasty opportunity to hone our culinary skills with a seasonal version of this time- honored dish. The chef’s Risotto Di Zucca is a clever use of some flavors gleaned from the October harvest, which he pairs perfectly with several more traditional ingredients. This creative blend attests to Chef Chas’ mastery of the dish as he manages to produce originality within the established discipline of the recipe.
Risotto is a very fast-moving two-act play that needs to be performed in a fluid, almost continuous, motion. If you are not in the habit already, a good culinary phrase to learn and apply here is mis en place; a French term referring to having all the ingredients necessary for a dish prepared and ready up to the point of cooking. For Risotto, it is especially important that the entire cast of ingredients be sliced, diced, measured and organized in order of appearance before starting, which will allow you to concentrate on the pan on the stove for the next 25-30 minutes. Specific to Chef Chas’ recipe, this means roasting the seasoned butternut squash and pumpkin seeds first, which are both key to the “wow” factor of this dish. Follow the chef’s directions to the letter, as his ingredients, both seasonal and traditional, are added within the structure of a script that has been performed this way for several centuries.
The first act of this recipe is called the “tostatura” and is all about the Carnaroli rice, which is a medium grain arborio variety native to Northern Italy. It has the ability to absorb a lot of liquid and release its high starch content. The tostatura is the preparation of the rice in layers. The Carnaroli is first sautéed in pancetta renderings to get the starch in the rice moving, so to speak. Then white wine is stirred in gently until completely absorbed. Lastly, chicken stock is slowly added and absorbed in three applications. All the while, a constant stirring loosens the starch molecules from the outside of the rice grains into the surrounding liquid that captures the flavors of all ingredients before being soaked up by the rice.
In the second act, called the “mantecatura”, the rice is taken off the heat for a gentle folding in of the diced, cold butter and finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Since the rice will continue to cook even when removed from the heat, it takes experience to judge when there is just enough liquid left to blend the butter and cheese mixture together to coat the rice without overcooking it. Risotto should be rich and creamy but with separate grains and al dente, meaning firm with a little bite resistance, yet cooked through. For Chef Chas La Forte the fine arts, especially music and writing, have been an integral part of his life for as long as he can remember. As for the culinary arts, the chef was brought up in a home that respected good food and the value of coming together for meals as an integral part of the family routine. Like most chefs, he points to both his parents’ talents in his childhood kitchen in Buffalo, New York, that continue to inspire his cooking. “My childhood shyness was probably why I developed the habit of expressing myself on paper and in the kitchen rather than speech”, the chef mused. “I admit to being both a participant in life as well as an objective observer at the same time. This “grand observer” perspective of life’s experiences gives me fodder for my creative writings as well as helps me to replicate foods from my childhood.”
Chas began working in the kitchens of Buffalo’s restaurants at the age of twelve. While this avocation continued to be a means of support through college, gradually cooking took on a greater importance in his life. By nineteen, as one of the youngest professional chefs in the state of New York, Chas knew that he had found the other passion, besides writing, that would sustain him for the rest of his life. Since then Chef Chas’ culinary career has taken him across America, throughout Europe, including an extended residence in Florence, Italy and eventually leading him back to this country and the culinary opportunities of Las Vegas. “From the perspective of this chronic-romantic-at-heart chef, life has certainly not been a disappointment and continues to provide me with inspiration and a positive attitude. In fact, I have written a book called “An Appetite for Life” that depicts love, life, family and the pursuit of happiness through a positive mindset. It’s something I am quite proud of and hope others find it of some value on their own journeys.”
The twist to the book is that it is in a handwritten style, using an Old English vernacular in journal entry form, consisting of short essays on the many facets of life common to us all. The sketch of the chef that appears in this article is on the back cover. An Appetite for Life will be available on Amazon.com soon; in the meantime, the chef suggests that anyone interested in the publication contact him directly using his personal email: A4starchef@aol.com. “For me, the depth and the drama of Old English is more picturesque and allows me greater breadth of expression than common verse. Plus I think it is a more interesting read. People have told me that the style allows them to linger over my words in order to get the true meaning of my message.” Master chef, published writer, and, according to Chas, a pretty good musician and blues singer to boot! It all adds up to a Renaissance man who celebrates life every day by anyone’s definition. He is also a member of the extended Melissa’s family of talented food service professionals who we have the pleasure of showcasing on this site and working with every day.
Risotto Di Zucca by Chef Chas La Forte
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup Cipolline onion, chopped
2/3 cup pancetta, chopped
2 cups arborio rice (Carnaroli)
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups butternut squash, peeled, diced in 1 inch cubes and roasted
3 Tbsp. fresh sage
1 qt. chicken broth
2 cups baby arugula
½ cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas), toasted
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
4 oz. cold unsalted butter, cut into small slices
Before starting this recipe, toss the peeled and diced squash with olive oil and pumpkin pie spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice) and roast in a foil lined pan for 25 minutes at 375° or until crisp tender. Toast the pumpkin seeds on the stovetop for just a few minutes on a medium high heat. (Note: pumpkin seeds have a tendency to cook further after being removed from heat, so undercook). Heat olive oil in a large pan until very hot. Add onions and pancetta, cook to render pancetta fat and so that the meat begins to brown without burning. Add the Carnaroli and stir into onion mixture until completely coated with the renderings and oil. Continue cooking for about 3-4 minutes to develop the starches in the rice. Add the fresh sage. Add the white wine and continue stirring until the wine is absorbed. Add enough hot chicken broth to just cover the rice and continue to cook, constantly stirring over medium heat. As the chicken broth is absorbed, add enough hot broth to just cover. Before the third addition of stock, add the cooked diced squash and the arugula and continue to stir, GENTLY! Add additional broth as previously and cook risotto until al dente. Take off the heat, and then add the butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Plating Pour into a warm bowl or large serving platter. Top with toasted pepitas. Risotto should be creamy and not too dry.