The Pleasures of Italian Volunteering and Authentic Sausage and Mushroom Risotto

Well folks, I'm pretty sure that my life is not real. I wake overlooking the Alps. I work with the feel of round ripening grapes underhand. And I eat—ohhh, do I eat—with the pomp and pleasure of an Italian goddess.

Beats a restaurant view, wouldn't you say?

Perhaps I sound melodramatic, but after fourteen months of traveling and volunteering as a means to see the world—and moreover, the world's food—we've happened upon one of those rare and delectable exchanges for which I'd initially set out searching.

Like caring for hope-filled and tasty tiny babies; you just feel good being around them
There's a nearly limitless amount of work that I would do for this: melon, gorgonzola/mascarpone "cake," and lardo .

When I began arranging this trip, the word "farm work" produced visions of produce planting, harvesting, eating local food at every meal, and other expectations that turned out to be overly-idealistic.

Not to say we didn't learn things, because overall we're walking away with loads of new farming and general life knowledge. Yet overall, the reality of volunteering on other peoples' "farms" often turned out to be something more like weeding, weeding, cleaning, clearing, weeding, and maybe some local foods thrown in here and there.

Exception #1) Nar's Organic Farm in Turkey. How I long for those days of huddling by the fire and eating some of the best food I've ever tasted
Exception #2) Pub life at the Grampus Inn was pretty luscious: Eating off the menu full of local foods, real ales, and a Sunday Roast in exchange for kitchen/cleaning help.

It's not that these programs (see HelpXWorkaway, and Wwoof) for volunteering on farms are some sort of sham, it's just that maybe I wasn't choosing big enough farms, maybe I wasn't reading between the lines to deduce what we would really be doing, and maybe the people who love food the way I do are just fewer and farther between than what I thought.

Paolo and John practice a little food appreciation while cooking freshly-caught river trout on the traditional Valtellina region pioda grilling stone
Rule: If you love food, buy whole chunks of cured meat (e.g. speck), a personal meat slicer (obviously), and slice it just before eating for best flavor.

At any rate, we know now what to look for when we peruse the host profiles in search of an experience worth traveling for (a post on those specifics soon), and our experience has paid off with Paolo and Marisa. Our four to five hours spent in the vineyard is the type of work in which you lose yourself, reaching an almost meditative state after enough hours of leaf clearing and vine straightening.

At the end of the day, you've helped something beautiful and ancient go on living, and it feels good.

The view of Teglio's stone watchtower from the vineyard
This is also kind of how you feel at the end of the day.

Do you know what else feels good? Paolo's cooking.

Besides giving us a bedroom with a stunning view of snow-capped Italian Alps, the real way in which he gives meaning to the word "exchange" is though the heart he puts into our meals.

I hope you're hungry: Authentic Italian risotto with sausage and mushrooms. Paolo (not to be confused with the "Paleo" diet trend) Style.

And it's your lucky day, because he's just shared a big one with us. Now, I know that this is hard for us English-speaking cultures to hear, but Italians don't really use exact measurements. Cooking is fluid, adjustable, and romantic; there must always be room for change and improvisation.

So, use the following recipe as a guide, but when it comes down to it, follow your intuition, and don't worry if it takes a few tries to find your own perfect risotto recipe. IF I were doing a life metaphor here, it would be delicious (eyerolls invited).

Paolo's Risotto con Salsicce e Funghi (Risotto with Sausage and Mushrooms)
4 cups beef stock (make your own or use a box of 32 oz stock, I suggest Imagine Organics)
2 cups water
1 generous cup dried mushrooms (porcini are ideal)
2 large Italian sausages (ask your butcher and go for quality, not sodium and strange additives), coarsely chopped/torn
2 cups arborio/risotto rice (Paolo says "one handful per person"...and I say "buy organic!")
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (DO NOT BUY those pre-grated shards of plastic. And if real parm is too pricey, I suggest Grana Padano or California's Vella Dry Jack)
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 tbs butter, separated
2 tbs EVOO
1/2 tbs dried thyme

I want seconds and I haven't even started eating
Fill that empty glass and we're in business

In a tall, thick pot, warm the 2 cups of water until it has nearly begun to simmer. Turn off the heat and add the mushrooms (if they're quite large, tear them while dry or chop them down to a more manageable size afterwards), soak for an hour (use a steamer basket for easy removal).

After, strain out the mushrooms, set aside and add the beef stock to the now-mushroom-flavored water.

Bring stock back to a low boil. Meanwhile, in a large separate sauté pan, heat 2 tbsp butter and 2 tbsp EVOO over medium heat, then add garlic. Sautée for about a minute, then add chopped sausages and mushrooms.

Stir continuously until sausages are browned. Add the rice and stir continuously to evenly toast it in the sausage fat. Add thyme.

When rice is transparent,  turn heat to low and add about 1.5 cups of the hot stock (this maintains the rice temperature) and stir. Keep uncovered and allow to constantly simmer.

Slowly add more stock as the rice absorbs the liquid (the stock should come up to just below the top layer of rice). Stir occasionally to keep the rice from sticking to the bottom.

Begin to taste the rice as you notice it getting soft (25-30 minutes), when it's just about al dente, stop adding liquid and let most of the remaining stock simmer away, stirring occasionally. You want a creamy textured end product, while remembering that the rice will continue to absorb liquid until it is either over-cooked or until you've found the perfect liquid ratio.

When you hit the magic moment, turn off heat and add 2 tbsp butter and grated parmigiano-reggiano, stir to melt. Cover for one minute, then serve!

Don't know what to serve as a side for your protein and carb rich main course? How about some cured beef bresaola?
Who needs vegetables? (that is a question I ask while shedding at least one tear)  

What I like about this recipe is it's simplicity. There are only five main ingredients and the process is incredibly easy; you don't even have to stir constantly. I'm not usually a rice person, but this is something I could eat weekly. By weekly I mean daily.

Thanks Paolo!

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