Aristotelian Rice and Peas (Risi e Bisi)

January 16, 2014

Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

Today: During the last lingering months of winter, this 6-ingredient kid-friendly pantry dish is exactly what you're looking for -- and it's as simple as rice and peas.

Risi e bisi on Food52

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This is not what you will serve at your next dinner party. It is not a feast of flavors. It is not a party in every bite, or a riot of sensation. It is already being talked about as an early contender for least spectacular dish of 2014. 

It’s exactly what you’re looking for, in other words.

The last month has been full of food that loudly demands your attention -- Miley Cyrus dishes, basically. But no one wants to be yelled at all the time. Sometimes I want my food just to hum quietly in the background. I want a quiet-night-in of a dish.

Right now, I assume you have two questions: First, why aren’t you telling us what’s in the damn dish? Second, isn’t that Miley Cyrus reference kind of past-due?

First, because if I up and say that I’m talking about rice and peas, you’ll go read some article about cookies instead. Second, yes, but that’s meant to establish my authority: once you have children, you’re always months out of date. If I’d made an in-step cultural reference, I’d have zero credibility. 

Third, rice and peas and a half-stick of butter. Did I mention that?

Fourth -- and yes, I know you only asked two questions, but don’t interrupt -- this is called risi e bisi in Italian. Which not only sounds a lot better than rice and peas but would be an excellent band name. I’m thinking maybe a punk twosome, dressed as clowns.

Risi e bisi on Food52

Marcella Hazan has a recipe for risi e bisi. OK, she has the same recipe, except for this part: “No alternative to fresh peas is suggested in the ingredients list, because the essential quality of this dish resides in the flavor that only good, fresh peas possess.”

Right. You will note that the ingredient list below includes: 14-ounce bag frozen peas.

I can explain.

For Marcella, risi e bisi is the essence of spring: it captures the elusive sweetness of fresh peas. She uses not just the peas but the pods, which are added to the broth, creating a kind of sweet pea-infused stock. It’s a brilliant recipe.

More: A 5-ingredient recipe that's more peas than pasta.

For me, this dish is about having something spring-like in the middle of winter. It captures the elusive satisfaction of having made dinner when you didn’t think you had enough to make dinner. If you have Arborio rice and some stock and frozen peas, you have enough to make this. 

These are different priorities. Is it better with fresh peas? You know the answer to that. And you should make it that way. (It’s in The Essentials.) 

But -- he says, consulting the calendar -- it isn’t April yet. 

Risi e bisi on Food52

A couple of things:

First, although it uses Arborio rice, this isn’t risotto -- there’s no stirring. It’s a thick, rich soup; it verges on stew. “It is at its best,” Marcella writes, “when it is just runny enough to require a spoon.” It’s no worse the next day, or even the day after that.

Second, after making the coconut-y dal from last time, EmilyC noted that, well, her children didn’t exactly devour it. I was thinking about this -- the your-mileage-may-vary problem of children -- when I made risi e bisi for Isaiah, our resident five-year-old. Isaiah used to devour peas. But this time he ate around the peas in his bowl. I asked him why. 

“Because the peas interfere with the taste,” he said. 

“But the peas are the taste,” I said. “Without the peas, you have less taste.”

This was not compelling.

I am going to start a support group: People Whose Children Are Wrong about the Taste of Things.

Aristotelian Rice and Peas, or the Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

Serves 4

14-ounce bag frozen peas (a full pound is fine, too)
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons onion, chopped
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup Parmesan, freshly grated

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here. 

Photos by James Ransom

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I'm the author of a book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World. My website is nicholasday.net; I tweet over at @nicksday. And if you need any good playdoh recipes, just ask.


Jessica Z. December 7, 2014
Has anyone tried this with long grain rice? I can't find arborio or other short grain rices in my local stores.
Sietske V. March 30, 2014
I skipped this recipe several times. It just looks so..... bland. Then you mentioned half a stick of butter.. parmesan.. and I think I may actually have to try this.

Ofcourse, my kids wont eat it. It has rice and green things. My youngest MAY try, if I scoop around the green things.. or run it through a food processor. *sigh*
Erin A. March 19, 2014
We've made this three times, and each time it was a hit with everyone in the fam--a rare accomplishment. Thanks so much.
AmandaMarie February 21, 2014
We've enjoyed this 3 times now since the recipe was first posted. No kiddos here-just makes a great, quick weeknight meal. Last night sauteed mushrooms with the onions and added some leftover roasted chicken. So many possibilities. I'm sure we're bastardizing the original recipe, but wanted to thank you for the inspiration.
Fairmount_market January 16, 2014
I'll be there with this evening's pot of tomato soup which apparently didn't taste sufficiently like tomatoes.
Marian B. January 16, 2014
Let me know if that punk twosome is looking to expand with, say, a tambourine player.
Kenzi W. January 16, 2014
Or a spoons player! On second thought, Marian, maybe you and I should just open for Risi e Bisi.
Matilda L. January 16, 2014
Can I join your support group? I'm so tired of the random, "I refuse to eat this food I ate copious amounts of yesterday." Bring back the love of broccoli.
Nicholas D. January 16, 2014
Absolutely. We meet at a bar that cards children.