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Quick and easy risotto (really)

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Warm weather foods often make us think Mediterranean or African or N.C. coastal. Salads, fresh veggies steamed and served at room temperature, local cheese, bread and grilled fish all are light and refreshingly easy to prepare. This summer, stay tuned for recipes inspired by the regions that celebrate our own hot weather crops.

The bumper crop of spinach still available at farmers' markets—even as the early tomatoes are coming in—has got me thinking. In addition to spinach salad for a Memorial Day cookout, as a steamed side dressed with soy sauce and sesame oil and the classic spinach quiche, I have come up with a weeknight quick-cook risotto.

Purists will insist this is not a true risotto, and they're right (though there are kitchen wars being waged over how much stirring is required to make a true version, and experience shows more stirring creates silkier texture). Still, good quality Arborio rice, cooked ahead and stirred into the liquid base just before serving, is delicious, uses whole grains paired with fresh local ingredients, and makes quick work of dinner. Leftovers travel well to the office for lunch and are good at room temperature. The recipe below has evolved through many forms and probably originated as a way to use leftover rice in a one-skillet meal. I have cooked rice just to use for this and also used day-old. Both work well, but if the rice has been refrigerated, break up the clumps before being adding to the skillet.

Short-Cut Spinach-Tomato Risotto

4 cups densely packed spinach or swiss chard leaves
1 cup Arborio rice, cooked according to package directions (or 2 1/2 to 3 cups leftover)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion (three to five fat spring onions, including firm green parts)
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves (optional)
2 cups finely chopped fresh tomatoes with their juice (or canned)
1/4 cup white wine or combination of lemon juice and water, as needed
1 cup grated flavorful hard or semi-hard cheese
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste

Rinse spinach, shake or spin dry, and tear leaves from stems; set aside. Cook rice if not using leftover; do not overcook it. Meanwhile, in a large skillet sauté onion in oil on medium heat until soft, 3 to 5 minutes. Add basil and stir until just wilted. Add tomatoes and simmer 2 to 3 minutes. If tomatoes are not very juicy, such as some Roma varieties now in the markets, add 1/4 cup white wine or 2 tablespoons lemon juice plus 2 tablespoons water to the tomato mixture. When mixture is bubbling, add spinach, stirring until wilted. Fold in rice and blend well. Remove from heat. Add cheese, salt and pepper, gently tossing to combine and melt cheese. Dish up right away or at room temperature. Serves 4.

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