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I picked up a magic 8-ball and stared at it intensely. “How will I eat you?” I asked the 8-ball, giving it a good shake. At first it quivered…then it responded, “You will stuff me with lamb, and I will be delicious.”

Before you begin questioning my mental well-being, I should tell you that this magic 8-ball was actually a squash (as if having conversations with squash makes me more sane). Described as buttery, the magic 8-ball bears a striking resemblance to zucchini. Zucchini’s portly cousin, perhaps?

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To my bag of 8-balls, I  added a couple of Ronde de Nice squashes for variety.  At home, I did a quick scan of the fridge and pantry. There was ground lamb in the freezer (the 8-ball clearly knew the contents of our freezer), leftover wilting mint in the fridge, and some red quinoa that I never got around to using. It looked like the making of a good stuffing.

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The pudgy magic 8-balls and Ronde de Nice were hollowed out with a spoon, and roasted in the oven for 20 minutes. Garlic, onion, ground lamb, squash pulp, and mint were tossed together in a hot pan, mixed with cooked quinoa, and then ladled into the tender squash vessels until there were small mountains of stuffing spilling over their tops. They were decked out with little hats before going back into the blazing hot oven.

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And then out of the oven they came, satisfying portions of vegetable, grain, and meat, served up in their own small, individual bowls — a fantastical combination of textures from the squeaky squash and chewy quinoa, pungently flavored with lamb and mint.

Nice suggestion, 8-ball. Maybe I should talk to vegetables more often.

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Roasted stuffing squash
Preheat oven to 400° F. Cut off tops of round squashes. Save the tops. Scoop out the flesh with a spoon (I like to face the spoon downward, having the curvature of the spoon go along the curvature of the squash as I dig. The tip of the spoon will be pointing toward the “rim” of the squash. Dig around the entire circumference before scooping, and shave off more pulp from the bottom if necessary.) Put the innards aside for the stuffing. With their tops put pack in place, put hollowed out squashes on a baking pan or dish. Drizzle some olive oil on top, and sprinkle on a bit of salt. Place in oven for 20 minutes (you can prepare the stuffing at this time). When time is up, take them out of the oven, and let them cool off enough to be handled. Leave oven on for roasting stuffed squashes.

Lamb and Quinoa Stuffing
Makes enough stuffing to fill 6 squashes.

1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed
1/4 medium onion, minced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 – 1/3 lb ground lamb
1-1/2 tsp fresh mint, chopped finely
1/2 of squash pulp (from above), roughly chopped into small chunks
Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare quinoa by placing 1/2 cup quinoa in 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 15 minutes. Let it sit for a few minutes for liquid to be completely absorbed if it hasn’t done so already. Set aside.

Heat about one tablespoon (or less) of olive oil  in a pan. Add garlic and onion, and toss around until soft and shimmering. Add ground lamb, breaking it up into small pieces. When lamb is cooked, add fresh mint and seasoning, along with the squash pulp. Cook for a couple more minutes, until squash is tender. Add cooked quinoa to the ground lamb mixture, and thoroughly mix.

Using a spoon, fill hollowed squash with stuffing. Press down with the back of the spoon while filling so that the squash can be stuffed as much as possible. Cover with squash tops and return them to the 400 degree oven, where they’ll bake for another 10 minutes.

Note: As an appetizer, one serving of stuffed squash should be more than plenty. Two should be enough for a main dish.

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Forgive me if the title of this blog post is a little misleading. This post isn’t really about a recipe for sweet biscuits layered with whipped cream and strawberries. It’s about strawberry cupcakes, which I suppose isn’t too far off, since there’s cake and strawberries involved.

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No, it wasn’t the similarity in ingredients that led me to think of strawberry shortcake. Actually, the world of Strawberry Shortcake came to mind when I made these cupcakes — the world of Strawberryland, where Strawberry Shortcake lives in her strawberry shortcake house, lunches on cake with friends, and tends her strawberry gardens. The Strawberry Shortcake cartoon specials aired even before I could start remembering these things, but I do recall playing with the dolls. I even had a plastic doll of the Peculiar Purple Pie Man, the villain of Strawberryland. Come to think of it, I would contort him into the most awkward positions.

Anyway. I should get back to the cupcakes.

The base for these cupcakes, a moist white cake, was transformed into a strawberry cake with the incorporation of a concentrated puree of strawberries. The original white cake recipe was modified using some odd calculations I had made to balance the amount of oil and liquid in the cake batter.

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The cupcakes came out a perfect blush pink and were full of strawberry flavor. As Strawberry Shortcake would say, they were “berry” delicious. Nestling a strawberry half into the frosting of each cupcake, I imagined the happy land of strawberries and sweets, and houses made of pies and cakes.

Can you imagine living in a house made of cake? I would love that.

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Strawberry Puree

This “puree” is made without a blender. In a pot, slowly mash one pound of frozen strawberries (thawed or not) with a spatula over medium-low heat. The resulting puree makes up about 1-1/3 to 1-1/2 cups. Cook the strawberry puree further. This reduces the volume of liquid in the puree, allowing for easier adaptation of the white cake recipe. [It took about 15 to 20 minutes to reduce the volume to about one-half (3/4 cup), although I was pretty bad about recording how much time it took. It takes some time, so be patient.] 1/2 cup of this concentrated puree is then added to the cake batter. (You can make use of the leftover portion by making dessert with it. Mix it into some vanilla ice cream to get a great-tasting strawberry ice cream.)

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Strawberry Cake
Adapted from the Cook’s Illustrated white cake recipe
Makes 24 cupcakes or a 9-inch round cake.

2-1/4 cups cake flour
3/4 cup reduced fat milk, at room temperature
6 large egg whites (3/4 cup), at room temperature (If you have frozen egg whites, you can use these as well. It is recommended to keep frozen egg whites in the freezer for no longer than a couple of weeks, but mine had been frozen for at least a couple of months, and they worked just fine for this purpose. As a note, 4 of the 6 egg whites I used were previously frozen.)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
12 tbsp unsalted butter (1-1/2 sticks), softened but still cool
1/2 cup concentrated strawberry puree

1. Set oven rack in middle position. Preheat oven to 350° F. Place cupcake liners in tins.
2. Pour milk, egg whites, and vanilla extract into a bowl large enough to fit 2 cups, and mix with fork until blended.
3. Mix cake flour, sugar, baking powder at a low speed. Add butter. Continue beating at slow speed until mixture resembles moist crumbs.
4. Add half of the milk mixture to crumbs and beat at medium speed (or high speed if using handheld mixer) for about a minute and a half.
5. To the remaining half of the milk mixture, add the concentrated strawberry puree and mix with a whisk until homogenous. Add this to the batter and beat for 30 seconds more. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl. Return mixer to medium (or high) speed and beat 20 seconds longer.
6. Spoon batter into prepared tins, 2/3 to 3/4 full. The volume of batter should be the perfect amount for 24 cupcakes. Bake for about 20-25 minutes or until toothpick tester comes out clean, rotating three-quarters of the way through. (My cupcakes were ready by 22 minutes.)
7. Let cupcakes rest in pans for 3 minutes before taking them out of the tins. Let cool completely before frosting and decorating.

Cream Cheese Frosting
(Feel free to reduce this recipe by 1/3. Making the full amount will give you lots of leftover frosting, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.)

1/2 cup (1 stick butter), room temperature
2 – 8 oz packages cream cheese, room temperature
4 cups confectioner’s sugar
4 tsp vanilla extract

1. Beat butter and cream cheese together on high for about 30 seconds until soft.
2. Gradually add powdered sugar, mixing at low speed to incorporate.
3. Add vanilla extract and beat until smooth and creamy.

Assembly

After the cupcakes have cooled completely, pipe on the frosting. I used a round tip, continually piping the frosting onto the center of the cupcake and keeping the tip submerged in the frosting to let the frosting ooze and creep out to the sides of the cupcake. I also used the tip (no pressure applied) to flatten out the blob of frosting, in one swirly motion.

Wash and dry 12 fresh strawberries. Keeping the stems attached, slice each strawberry in half, from head to toe. Blot cut ends on a paper towel and place one strawberry half on top of each cupcake, slightly pressing the strawberry into the frosting.

If you wish to make these in advance, add the fresh strawberries just before you are ready to serve the cupcakes. Cupcakes should keep for a few days, refrigerated in an airtight container. Bring to room temperature before serving.

the lost coast

The Lost Coast is a rugged stretch of wilderness along the Mendocino coast. It was too expensive for the state to continue Highway 1 through this area, so the coastline was left undeveloped. We chose to take advantage of this untouched beauty with a weekend backpacking trip to the southern portion of the Lost Coast.

Our trip began with a a drive up north. We prepared for forecasted rain, but it turned out to be a sunshine-y day. On our way, we stopped in Fort Bragg for lunch in a cozy cafe and a side excursion to Glass Beach (a stop recommended to us by a friend).

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Glass Beach used to be a public dump in the 1940s, and the broken bits of glass that were once part of the trash have been polished smooth by the sand and waves over the years. There used to be more glass, but there was a decent amount remaining when we visited. The seascape itself was incredible. J also found rows and rows of small crabs hiding under the intertidal rocks.

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We continued our drive up the coast, hoping to make it to our destination in time for the hike to our first campsite. Unfortunately, after driving back and forth (17 miles each way) on the sinuous highway in search for an unmarked paved road and 6 miles of narrow, unpaved road full of potholes (still slick from the previous week of rain), we knew it was getting too late to begin our hike.

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Usal road. Dirt road. I was never in my life so tense as I was traveling on this road. I gripped my seat until my knuckles turned white. And I stopped taking photos after this segment, which was the okay part. On the way back from our trip, we saw a 4×4 stuck in a deep, wide puddle. Another truck was trying to pull it out. The two drivers stared at us in disbelief while we chugged on by in our little Honda Fit. That made us chuckle. I have to say, J was an excellent driver.

So we gathered some driftwood from the nearby beach, and settled down on a spot in the campground. We didn’t have the best sleep that night because our neighbors were a loud bunch. They decided to kick off the Memorial Day weekend by having a yowling sing-along to booming country pop at 3 a.m.

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The next morning, we woke feeling unrested, but our spirits were not dampened. We joked about our neighbors and assured each other that they would not be joining us on the trail. Due to our delay of half a day, our itinerary had to be shortened, but that would leave us more time to enjoy the scenery.

And beautiful scenery it was.

The trail climbed up and down, winding in and out of forests and coastal bluffs.

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We saw the prettiest wildflowers in bloom along the trail,

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and even picked and ate some wild strawberries. They were so tiny!

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This is where we set up our base camp, at Little Jackass beach. We took off our hiking boots and sank our toes into the cool, black sand. We watched brown pelicans dive into the water for their catches, and giggled at a couple of seals who would pop their heads out of the waves every now and then to stare at campers on the beach.

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We explored some of the beach caves, and then had a dinner of andouille sausage and mac n’ cheese.

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After dinner, we went for a stroll on the beach to admire the sunset.

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We climbed over some big rocks to get a good view. The light was magical.

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The next day, we set out for a day hike to Wheeler beach.

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Sunrise

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On the trail, view from the top.

On our way to Wheeler, we encountered three sets of hikers who were coming from the opposite direction. Each one told us to be on the lookout for a group of Roosevelt elk. Three big bulls, they said. Right on the trail in the direction we were headed for.

And then, we caught up to them. Since they were taking the same trail, all we could do was follow them. They were massive. With velvety antlers that reminded me of reindeer antlers. J was daring and got pretty close to them. Of course, I followed.

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These were very shy, yet curious creatures. One guy hung back to nosh on some good shrubbery, while two went ahead. Since we didn’t want to come between the bull and his friends, we lingered a safe distance behind him. I think he was a little nervous about us though, because then he decided to run up a steep hill. Boy, not only are these guys agile, they’re fast as lightning, too!

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We eventually passed the elk when they found a grazing spot off the trail, and reached Wheeler in time for lunch. Then we napped under the sun on warm — and very therapeutic — pebbles. Later, we flipped over onto our bellies to search for pretty pebbles.

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After a relaxing afternoon, we started back towards our camp.

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Amazingly, right before our campsite, we encountered another group of elk! These were younger males.

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close-up

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hiding

On our last day, we woke at the crack of dawn for a hurried hike back to the trailhead. It would be a long drive home.

View more photos here.

quiche, two ways

So the Lost Coast was AMAZING. We came home last night exhausted, but happy. I have a bunch of photos to get through, but hopefully I’ll be able to post them here soon. In the meantime, let’s get back to the food…

There’s an awesome *little* bakery nearby that is always packed near brunch time, and even well into the afternoon. The bakery makes the most amazing pastries, bread puddings, tarts, and quiches, so it is no wonder at all that it does so well. I myself am a huge fan of their morning buns and their light-as-air quiches.

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While looking for a quiche recipe for Mother’s Day brunch, I delightedly came across Elisabeth Prueitt’s recipe on the Martha Stewart website. And better yet, I found not only ONE, but TWO recipes. Since both recipes use the same base for the filling, and the recipe for a single quiche calls for making an enormous quiche in a deep dish 10-inch tart pan, I decided to make two different quiches with just one recipe. Instead of a large tart pan, I used two smaller pie pans to make one bacon and zucchini quiche and one Swiss chard quiche.

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flakiness!

Everything about this quiche (or these two quiches) was wonderful, from the flaky crust to the fluffy, light and savory filling. What I did not anticipate was how crazy delicious the Swiss chard quiche would be. By making two quiches, we scored some leftovers too, which made me a VERY happy girl.

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The flaky pie crust that holds the quiche together takes awhile to prepare, but it can be made ahead of time. Don’t forget to allot time for the blind baking. The blind baking helps the crust get nice and flaky before you add the liquid filling. While the blind-baked crusts cool, prepare your egg mixture and filling. This is the easy part. Combine the flour eggs, creme fraiche, milk, and seasonings. Have your bacon cut into smaller pieces, zucchini ribboned (I used a vegetable peeler), chard roughly chopped, and gruyere grated. Load one cooled crust with bacon and zucchini, and the other with Swiss chard. Top each off with the egg mixture, filling the crusts to the brim. For the Swiss chard quiche, try to submerge the chard leaves in the egg mixture as much as possible — it is okay to have a few sticking out here and there, but you don’t want to burn most of the chard before the quiche is done baking. After about an hour in the oven, you’ll have two beautifully puffed, golden quiches.

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One Bacon-Zucchini & One Swiss Chard Quiche

Recipe makes two 9-inch pie dish quiches
adapted from here and here

6 tbsp all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 recipe flaky crust dough
10 large eggs
2 cups creme fraiche
2 cups whole milk (I used reduced fat milk)
2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh thyme
(3 slices center-cut bacon, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces and
2/3 medium or 1 small zucchini, peeled lengthwise into 1/8-inch-thick ribbons – for one quiche
AND 2 cups roughly chopped Swiss chard leaves, excluding tough stems – for the other quiche)
1/2 to 2/3 cup gruyere

1. On a lightly floured work surface, roll dough into a 16-inch round. With a dry pastry brush, sweep off any excess flour; fit dough into a 2-inch deep-dish tart pan with a removable bottom, gently pressing it into the sides. Using a sharp knife, trim the dough evenly with the edge of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap; chill tart shell until firm, about 20 minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line the tart dough with a sheet of parchment paper and fill with pie weights. Transfer to oven and bake until light brown, about 25 minutes. Remove weights and parchment paper and continue baking until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, mix together 1 egg and flour on high speed until smooth. Add the remaining 9 eggs and continue mixing until well blended.
4. Place creme fraiche in a medium bowl and whisk until smooth; add milk and continue whisking until well combined. Add to mixer along with salt, pepper, and thyme; mix until well combined. Strain mixture into a large bowl through a fine mesh sieve (I skipped this part).
5. Place bacon and zucchini ribbons into one prepared pie shell. Place chopped Swiss chard into the other prepared pie shell. Divide the 1/2 cup grated Gruyere between the two pies, sprinkling the cheese on top of the fillings. Pour over egg mixture until tart shell is full (you may not need to use all of the egg mixture). Bake 20 minutes; reduce temperature to 325 degrees, and continue baking until filling is slightly firm, rather than liquid, and crust is a deep golden brown, 40 to 50 minutes more. Transfer quiche to a wire rack to cool until set, about 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. To reheat, cover quiche with aluminum foil and bake in an oven heated to 325 degrees for about 15 minutes.
Note: One of the best things about serving quiche is that you don’t have to worry about serving it piping hot when your guests arrive. You can even make it way ahead of time and reheat it in the oven (as mentioned above, or for a longer time if the quiche has been refrigerated).

Flaky Crust Dough
Makes enough for two 9- or 10-inch tart shells
from here

1 tsp salt
2/3 cup ice water
3 cups plus 2 tbsp all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 cup (2 sticks) plus 5 tbsp very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces

1. In a small bowl, mix together salt and water. Keep very cold until ready to use.
2. Place flour and butter in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse briefly until mixture forms large crumbs. Add the salt water mixture and continue pulsing until a dough has just formed but is not smooth.
3. On a lightly floured work surface, evenly divide dough. Form each piece of dough into a disk about 1 inch thick. Wrap each disk with plastic wrap and chill at least 2 hours and up to overnight.

anticipation

I am a little too excited for our weekend trip to write about quiche today, so I’ll leave you with some photos of our hike in Muir Woods.

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We’ll be hiking, exploring, and camping for a full three days in the Lost Coast, which is on the far northern coast of California. We’re starting out early tomorrow morning for our five and a half hour drive. Yippee! Can’t wait to tell you more about it when we get back.

Hope you have a happy Memorial Day weekend!

I don’t recall even knowing about millet until very recently, when my aunt tried to tell me about a certain grain that the Chinese like to use for porridge. We had to use a Chinese-English dictionary to figure out that she was talking about millet. (Its name in Chinese literally translates to “small grain.”) Shortly after this conversation, the prevalence of millet was revealed to me. While browsing through some Chinese snacks at the supermarket, I found that millet was a main ingredient for some of them. Who knew?

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Millet was a staple grain in northern China long before rice became popular. These days, millet is primarily grown and consumed in India and Africa. Millet is quite a versatile grain. It is used to make breads and porridges, and has about the same protein content as wheat. With its revival here in the states, it has also found its way into baked goods. Like these muffins here.

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I made these blueberry muffins for a simple Mother’s Day brunch a couple weeks back, served alongside fresh fruit, broiled shrimp on skewers, and quiche (which I’ll be sharing with you next). While millet is not the main ingredient in these muffins, it is certainly a star. I could not suppress the grin on my face that grew bigger and bigger as I worked my way through my first muffin, crunching down on the nutty millet embedded within.

Try it. I think you’ll like it.

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Blueberry Millet Muffins

Makes 12. Adapted from a recipe for blueberry muffins here

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup toasted millet
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen
1-1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon zest
1/2 cup milk

1. Toast millet by placing 1/2 cup millet in a shallow pan over medium heat. Occasionally move and stir millet until you hear popping sounds and smell a nutty aroma. Set aside to cool.
2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 12-cup muffin pan with squares of parchment paper or muffin liners; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, nutmeg and salt. Working over the bowl, toss blueberries in a fine sieve with about 1 1/2 teaspoons flour mixture to lightly coat. (If you are using frozen blueberries, like I did, there is no need to thaw them. Blueberries can be coated with flour mixture directly out of the freezer.) Set aside the flour mixture and the blueberries. Mix cooled, toasted millet thoroughly into the flour mixture.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or using a handheld mixer, beat butter and 1 cup sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until combined. Mix in vanilla and lemon zest.
3. With the mixer on low speed, add reserved flour mixture, beating until just combined. Add milk, beating until just combined. Do not overmix. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the blueberries. Divide batter evenly among the prepared muffin cups.
4. Bake, rotating pan halfway though, until muffins are golden brown and a cake tester inserted in the center of one muffin comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. (With frozen blueberries, the blueberries may still be cold after the muffins come out of the oven. Allow for muffins to come to room temperature if you want to bite into room temperature blueberries.)

Note: Muffins can be stored for several days in the fridge in an airtight container, or even at room temperature. For best enjoyment, reheat muffins in the oven before consuming.

Some English shelling peas arrested my attention at the farmers’ market the other day, and I knew that I had bring some home with me. Sweet, sweet peas! They’re good to eat raw, and they’re good to eat cooked. They’re also fun to shell. You pop open their pods, and with a swift rake of your fingers, the cutest balls in the perfect shade of chartreuse come plummeting down into the catching bowl.

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pea family!

I wanted to use the peas in a risotto, so I bought several artichokes to go along with the peas. Artichokes would impart an earthy flavor to contrast the sweetness of the peas, and also add texture to the risotto. Unlike the peas, artichokes are not much fun to prepare. You end up hacking away at most of the artichoke, saving only the heart and few tender parts of the leaves and stem, but all the effort involved is worth it in the end.

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We ate this risotto with broiled wild salmon marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. The risotto was delicate, bright, and so pleasing that I heaped seconds onto my plate.

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Pea and Artichoke Risotto
Serves 4 as a main dish

1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion or 1/2 large onion, chopped
1-1/2 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
6 cups water, boiled in a pot and kept at a simmer
4 smallish to medium-sized trimmed artichokes, cut into bite-size pieces (on how to trim artichokes, see here)
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1 large cup shelled peas (equal to about a pound of unshelled peas)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

In a separate pot, boil 6 cups of water and bring to a low simmer. In a larger pot or deep pan, heat butter and olive oil over medium-high heat. When butter has completely melted, throw in the minced garlic. After garlic sizzles for a short time, add the chopped onion and cook until translucent. The onion and garlic should be shimmering in oil at this point, but if not, you can add a little more olive oil. Add the prepared artichokes and cook for about 5 minutes. (Season with a little bit of salt and pepper if you wish.) Stir in the rice, and cook for one minute before adding the white wine. While stirring, continue cooking the rice until the wine has evaporated. Ladle 1-1/2 simmering water into pot, cooking risotto until liquid is absorbed. Add more water, one cup at a time, each time after the liquid has been absorbed. Remember also to add lemon zest. Stir often while doing this, and cook until rice is just tender and the risotto is creamy. This should take around 20 minutes. In pot with simmering water, add enough water to cook the peas in, and bring to a boil. Add peas and cook for about 2 to 3 minutes and drain before adding to risotto. Stir in grated Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.