Zucchini Chronicles #2: Summer Risotto

Part of summer and fall in Southern California means brush fires. Our landscape is dotted with crouching lions of golden hills and shady, cool canyons. Unfortunately, the coolness of the canyons can't keep the lions in check, and this time of year they begin to leap up into orange and black stains against the sky. On Tuesday afternoon, a brush fire broke out near where the 2 and the 134 intersect, and though this is a few miles from where I live, within an hour, I couldn't see the bluff on the other side of the Arroyo Seco, the canyon on which I live. Within another hour, the smoke had dissipated, but I could still taste it in the air.

I had a meeting at 7 that night; it didn't last long, and I returned home to fix myself a meal of satisfying leftovers. The house was my own, as ECG was on his way home from a conference in San Diego. It was quiet.

A fire engine roared up the street, interrupting the crickets and night birds, and stopped in front of my next door neighbor's house. The engine, growling, impatient, sat in front of their yard, and I stepped out front to see what was going on. Just as I did so, the engine roared, and reversed itself awkwardly to go around the corner. Nothing seemed to be happening next door, so I went back inside, only to see flames through my back windows.

Flames! Smoke! I ran outside again, this time in my back yard, and was struck my thick smoke and the fierce glow of my back neighbor's house on fire.

The first few minutes of realizing my neighbor's house was on fire, and a big fire, not just a spot fire, were messy and stumbly. I ran around turning water on. I grabbed a hose to try to douse the back end of the property, but in the dark, tripped over garden tools sloppy me had left out. I tangled and untangled myself in the wire edging of the veggie beds. Finally, I made it to the back of the property to spray everything down in the corner adjacent to the fire. Firemen on the other side of the wall apparently had the same plan, and I as I stood there spraying, a huge arc of water came over the wall, drenching me and that area of the property. So much for my little garden hose.

Once everything was wet, I went back inside to get my camera. This is what I saw.

Another neighbor, the one who had called 911, was out back too, and he told me that he had run over to the house when he had seen the fire to knock on the door and alert whomever was inside, but no one was there. No one was hurt in this fire, but the house—a home to a family with children—and most of its contents were destroyed.

ECG got home after the house had become smoky charcoal. We fell asleep that night to the smell of smoke and the sound of firemen's chainsaws cutting the embers apart.

I don't know the neighbors that lived in that house, but I've heard them a lot. I've heard their music, their kid-birthday parties (complete with jumpers and lots of happy screaming), the low commands to an obedient dog, the sounds of tinkering on car engines. I've never seen their faces; the back fence has been effective. I don't know where they are now that their home is a wreck, and I don't know how to tell them that I'm so sorry about their home. Unlike the brush fires that happen this time of year that end up splattered all over the news, their catastrophe didn't hit Channel 4. There was no newscopter flat-flat-flatting above. Their huge headline was no one else's.

The next day was peaceful. Either we had become so accustomed to the smell of smoke that we could no longer smell it, or, it had flitted all away and into the atmosphere. Smalls laid her first egg.

The day after our neighbors lost their house, we celebrated Smalls' first egg with a special meal. Isn't life like this? So many big catastrophes followed by small victories. Thank God we're an optimistic species.

Summer Risotto with Garden Vegetables, Bacon, and Good Eggs
Inspired by, but greatly straying from, Jamie West's apple-wood-smoked bacon and farm-fresh egg risotto.

I liked using yellow tomatoes here because they hide in the rice so that no one is aware of eating tomatoes, but they add a surprising summer brightness to the dish. The zucchini becomes little nuggets of garlicky flavor, and it all comes together to be much greater than its humble ingredients.

You will need:
4 cups chicken broth, plus water, if necessary
2 large yellow tomatoes
1/2 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 zucchini, diced
5 strips of bacon, diced
2 cups arborio (or other risotto) rice
salt and pepper
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano
4 egg yolks

To make the risotto:
In a medium saucepan, heat the broth on low just so that it is warm when you need it.

Using a sharp knife, carefully peel the yellow tomatoes, then drop them in a food processor and puree them until smooth and liquidy.

Place the onion, garlic, zucchini, and bacon in a large, heavy pot, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the bacon has begun to brown and the vegetables are becoming tender. Add the rice and stir the mixture together. Cook for a few minutes (2? 3?) until the all rice kernels are transparent around the edges and showing their "eyes."

Add half of the pureed tomatoes to the pot and stir until the tomato puree is absorbed by the rice. Add the other half and repeat the process. Do not add more liquids until the liquids you've already added are absorbed.

Once the tomato puree is absorbed, add the warm broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring regularly and making sure the stock is absorbed before adding the next 1/2 cup. If you run out of broth before completing the risotto, use room temperature water in its stead. Once the rice is creamy, no longer crunchy in the center of each kernel, but still holding its shape, remove the mixture from the heat. Taste and season with salt and pepper as necessary.

Plate the risotto, making a soft hill with a small indentation in the center. Gently place an egg yolk in the indentation and scatter Parmigiano over it all.

Serves 4 optimists.


June said…
Wrenching story. But when I serve this risotto (oh, HOW, we love risotto!), I am going to think of it as optimistic risotto. We need that around here this week too.

Beautiful first egg!
Wendy said…
Those poor people. Feel so awful for them.
Christina said…
June: It is an optimistic risotto, and I hope eating it makes you and yours quite content.

Wendy: It is a horrible situation. I hope everything turns out well for them.
chaiselongue said…
Terrible to lose your house. Fire is so scary and it's sad you don't know your neighbours. We have fires in the countryside here, we could see one from our house the other night, but luckily it was put out quite quickly. Delicious risotto recipe - I'll try it soon.
Anonymous said…
You acted like a true photographer. I would have been doing an imitation of chicken little.
ann said…
Wow, so glad you guys were unharmed. I think the spectre of wildfires would do my head in. I think I'd have endless, sleepless summers. I'm far too much of a worrier. I do like the anecdote about the firemen dousing you though. That would be the moment where I would cry and then start laughing hysterically if it had been me :-)
Jean Z. said…
I don't think the smell of a house fire ever leaves you. When I was a child, a neighbor lost their house to a middle-of-the-night fire. I woke up with my bedroom filled with smoke and the panic it was my house on fire. To this day, whenever the fire alarm sounds, or I smell smoke, I still go into that "fight or flight" adrenaline mode. I hope your neighbors are well. -- Jean
Christina said…
Chaiselongue: I'm glad your neighbors' house was saved quickly. It is sad that I don't know these neighbors, but I hope to remedy that.

AH: Believe me, I did my Chicken Little act too, but after being doused with a firehouse, I regained some sort of composure.

Ann: Fires are, indeed, scary. For some odd reason that night I didn't cry. I felt like it a little when ECG came home, but it never happened, and when the next day came, the day was so full it was hard to give the event the reflection it deserved.

Jean: It won't leave my memory, partly because the scent doesn't physically go away. I couldn't smell it the day after the fire much I think because I had reached smoke saturation at that point, but now I smell it all the time. What's left of the house still smells like fire. I'm sorry you had to witness your neighbor's loss of home.
Kale for Sale said…
I recently smelled and saw smoke in an adjacent yard and ran immediately out of my house to the next door neighbors. Of course it wasn't until we determined it was a barbque that I fully realized I was in my underwear. Good laughs all around but it is so frightening. I'm glad no one was hurt and yes, that we are an optimistic species. You put that so beautifully.

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