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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

a very british spring

So, the weather's shit.

Thanks to the combined efforts of both the Daily Mail and my Facebook news feed (along with the actual weather), this isn't something that's escaped my notice. And it seems we've all been left feeling rather cheated- I mean, we know the deal. Our grim, overcast little corner of the world is hardly famed for its balmy climes, but I think we collectively draw the line at freak April snow storms and sub-zero wind-chill factors. My own personal grievance with this disgusting excuse for a Spring resides more in the fact that 90% of my wardrobe is comprised of flimsy sun dresses that I'd probably be sectioned for wearing outside (only because of the temperature, not because a large number of them feature cats and polka dots quite heavily). But, every cloud has a silver lining- even these bastards. Mine just happens to be risotto.

Cats and Polka Dots
I like risotto. I don't love it- nine times out of ten, if I'm going for starch, I'll opt for pasta instead. I suppose I've always felt there's an inherent conflict at work within dishes like risotto: they pair magically with all of the fresh flavours we associate so heavily with Spring and Summer (courgettes, broad beans, asparagus...), but its very nature means that it's the last thing you'll find me craving on a warm day. If we ever bloody get one. But at times like this- when we're getting the first few Spring vegetables through (well, give it a couple of weeks), but the weather's still abysmal (or teasing us with blue skies, sunshine and two degree temperatures), it couldn't suit my mood better.
Luke-  a man that spends too
much time on his hair, and
too little learning to cook
for himself.

Its seasonal suitability aside, my reasons for cobbling together a risotto were threefold. Firstly, the house was almost entirely bereft of food, and quite simply, I couldn't be arsed to venture out to buy more. It would have involved both getting dressed and braving the aforementioned rubbish weather conditions. Secondly, I had a jug of damn tasty chicken stock languishing in the fridge that was in danger of being either thrown out by my husband, or mistaken for soup. I figured I really ought to put it to some use. Finally, on the Monday, I received a particularly vitriolic and threatening message from my good friend Luke, that went something like this:

'So, your blog inspired me to make a risotto this evening, except I'm terrible at cooking risotto, which means you fucked up my dinner. You owe me one risotto. You have 24 hours to respond.'

I chose to ignore the fact that, at no point in the course of our friendship have I ever proffered any risotto-cooking advice that would then result in my culpability when it went tits up, but instead decided to use it as an opportunity to put this together:

A Fail Safe Guide To Risotto Cooking That Even Tools Like Luke Can't Cock Up

The beauty of this recipe is that it serves as a stodgy, starchy base for anything seasonal/to hand that you'd care to throw in. It goes without saying that some things work infinitely better than others, and I personally tend to keep my risottos vegetarian (with the occasional exception made for a decent shellfish version). I find that clumps of meat tend to screw with the otherwise uniform, velvety texture of the dish, and Italian cuisine has always been a dab hand at making you forget there's no meat involved. It was something British soldiers often remarked upon in Naples during WW2- the complexity of flavour in seemingly simple dishes such as this disguise the lack of protein, which is fortunate when the only protein you can get your hands on is rats and dogs, as was the case in heavily-rationed southern Italy. And we thought horse meat was bad.

A basic risotto won't cost you much cash, or need flash, hard-to-procure ingredients. All it takes is patience and decent seasoning. It's one of the easiest dishes in the world to concoct- unless, of course, you begin by boiling your risotto rice. Which, as it turns out, was where Luke was going wrong...

Risi e Bisi

...  A Venetian-style risotto that you can tart up accordingly.

What You Need:

A rice that's almost too
prettily-packaged to merit using
  • 180g Arborio risotto rice. Other varieties are available, but this is decent value, creamy, and less likely to overcook than some others (like Vialone Nano). Carnaroli is regarded as the best, if you're feeling purist. 
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 finely chopped shallots
  • 1 finely chopped garlic clove
  • 50g of butter, cubed and stored in the fridge until use.
  • 750ml of hot chicken or vegetable stock
  • 175ml-ish of white wine- whatever you have to hand (of semi-decent quality- no Lambrini, please...)
  • A small handful of mint leaves, 3/4 of them roughly chopped, but leaving a few to throw into your stock.
  • A slightly larger handful of parsely, roughly chopped (including stems)
  • 1 lemon 
  • A handful of Parmesan shavings
  • A handful of frozen peas, defrosted.
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

What You Do:

1. First, gently heat your stock, adding the intact portion of your mint leaves and a small squeeze of the lemon juice.

2. Heat your olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Add your shallots, and proceed to soften at a painfully slow pace, adding your chopped garlic after five minutes or so. The two should remain pale (never golden), and turn opaque. The longer you can spare for this step, the sweeter and more beautiful they will taste- I'd say that fifteen minutes is the bare minimum you should have them frying away gently for. This bit's called soffrito, if you fancy learning a new word. 

If you didn't know what garlic looked like, I daresay you
wouldn't be reading a pretentious foodie blog. But here's
a picture anyway.
3. Add your risotto rice of choice, and turn over with a spatula or wooden spoon a few times, coating thoroughly in the oil. Cook like this for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until they too turn faintly opaque.

4. Pour a small glass of white wine, and drink it absent mindedly whilst you carry out step three. Then replace it with the one you need to complete step four. Throw this one in the pan, and top up your glass once again.

5. Continue to cook very gently until the wine has been absorbed (the stuff in the risotto, that is. Not the stuff in your hand). Then, proceed with your stock- one ladle at a time, waiting patiently until each dose has been absorbed before adding another. Stir slowly but frequently throughout.

... the same probably goes for shallots.
...That should take at least 20 minutes (but potentially more, depending on the absorbency of your rice variety, the stirring, the day of the week, the lunar position of Mercury... anything). Go by instinct- just don't rush it, don't saturate it with stock, and don't leave it unattended to fiddle with your wine/telly/significant other.

6. Once it's all absorbed, turn off the heat, add your cold butter cubes, the peas, parmesan, mint, parsley and check for seasoning. Pop the lid back on. Now you can fiddle with your wine/telly/significant other, as your risotto needs a few moments for the 'mantecatura-ing.' That's the bit where it goes all creamy. It's also snazzy new Italian word #2- we're practically bilingual now.

7. Serve with a rocket salad, an optional squeeze of lemon juice, and more of that wine, if there's any left. This should do four as a starter, or two as a main meal.


Your possibilities are endless. But here are a handful to be getting along with:

  • Wild Mushroom: add in with the soffrito at the beginning, just after the garlic. Ceps, morels, and everyday chesnut work especially well- clean them with a dry brush first (not in water), and don't crowd the pan when cooking, and you'll be on to a winner.
  • Courgette ribbons. Not for present wrapping or hair-tying.
    Just eating.
  •  Beetroot: Turns vivid pink, and thereby looks amazing. Again, add your cubed, cooked (not pickled) beetroot just after the garlic.
  • Courgette and Broad Bean: For the height of summer. Prepare ribbons of courgette with a potato peeler, and cook oh-so briefly in butter, pepper and lemon zest for a minute- no more- just as you're ladling in your last dribble of stock. Add to the pan alongside your peas.
  • Butternut Squash: Roast cubes of squash in olive oil for 15-20 minutes, and mash half of them. Stir this puree through the risotto at the end, and then scatter the remaining lumps artistically over the top of the finished article.

Buon Apetito! (Thanks, Google Translate...)

mrs hunt.x

A risotto so heavily-garnished with salad., it's barely worth putting a
picture in. Sorry about that.

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