In many mountain regions of Italy, chestnuts have been cultivated and gathered as staple foods for generations. In Valle d'Aosta (with thousands of cows), it is customary to cook chestnuts and rice together in milk, a simple, nourishing dish that lends itself to many variations. Traditionally, riso e castagne was made as a light supper in the evening, especially for children before bedtime. The dish has a natural sweetness that kids love, and if you emphasize that quality with sugar, honey, or a swirl of jam, you have a lovely dessert or sweet brunch dish.
It is just as easy, though, to take riso e castagne in a savory direction, as I do in this recipe. With a finish of fontina and grana, it becomes a rich-tasting chestnut-flavored riso or risotto, wonderful as a primo or as a main course. And if the same dish is cooked with more milk-or less rice-it becomes a comforting, creamy, and warming zuppa, which I am sure is much appreciated in the Alpine winter.
2 quarts milk
2 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 pound frozen cooked chestnuts, defrosted and thinly sliced
2 cups arborio rice, or any other Italian short grain rice
1 cup fontina, finely shredded
½ cup Grana Padano, freshly grated, plus more for the table
Put the milk, 2 cups water, butter, and salt in the saucepan, set it over medium- high heat, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Stir in the sliced chestnuts, and lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cover the pot, and cook about 25 minutes, until the chestnuts are very tender and fall apart when pressed against the side of the pan.
Stir in the rice, return to a gentle simmer, cover the pot, and cook, stirring often, until the most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is al dente, another 15 to 20 minutes. Be prepared to serve immediately.
Turn off the heat, and stir in the cheeses until thoroughly amalgamated. Spoon the riso into warm pasta bowls, and serve immediately, passing additional grated cheese at the table.