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In southern Italy, pasta al pomodoro is the Alpha dish, the first act of culinary creation, the homecoming comfort food of children and adults alike. Pairing the succulent tomatoes of the Campania region with risotto rice rather than spaghetti or maccheroni is therefore very nearly an act of sacrilege. Risotto is associated with northern Italy, and its classic accompaniments tend to be savoury Po Valley staples like chicken broth, parmesan or mushrooms.
Maybe it’s because he’s from Poggibonsi, a Tuscan town that’s pretty much halfway between Milan and Positano. Or maybe it’s just because he likes to break the rules. Whatever the reason, Matteo Temperini, executive chef of Le Sirenuse’s Michelin-starred La Sponda restaurant, has made tomato risotto one of his signature dishes, proving that north and south can not only meet but get along just fine.
It’s important to use a good risotto rice for this recipe – though whether you use the Carnaroli, Arborio or Vialone Nano varieties is largely a matter of personal taste. But the key ingredients are the tomatoes. Small and tasty is the watchword: big watery supermarket tomatoes are not going to work. You may not be able to find the same Sorrento, piennolo and datterino varieties that Matteo reaches for when he prepares this dish at La Sponda, but a good farmer’s market in summer should provide you with some serviceable replacements. Experiment with cherry tomatoes, San Marzano and other varieties, using the larger ones for the tomato fillets.
The first step is the most time-consuming: to bring out the flavour of the tomatoes, leave all but the green ones (which are used raw) in a hot place for a while beforehand. Ideally they should spend 3 hours in an oven at 75°C, but if yours doesn't go down to such a low temperature try the top of a wood-burning stove, or even the back shelf of your car in summer! When they’re nicely softened, peel them and toss them in a dish with a little salt.
Fry the chopped onion in the olive oil on a gentle heat. When the onion is becoming transparent, add the rice and stir it around for a couple of minutes until it’s nicely coated in oil, then pour on the vegetable stock to cover the rice. Add the tomato purée.
Just before the rice is cooked – around 17 or 18 minutes in – add the twist of butter, the grated parmesan and the basil, plus salt and pepper to taste, and stir around to coat and amalgamate.
At this point, take the pan off the heat and add the tomatoes, blending in to warm them through but not cook them. Arrange in a bowl and sprinkle over the top some of the zest and fragments of pulp from a lemon confit (a lemon that has been preserved in salt and a little sugar), plus some lime zest and a few basil leaves. That’s it: the lightest, most summery risotto you could imagine.