Sunday, 21 June 2009

Risotto I: The Traditional Way

I make a lot of risotto. It's one of my top comfort foods. It's never a quick option (it takes around 30-45 minutes), but it's not too much hassle, and is so deliciously indulgent it has to be worth the wait.

A lot of people, it seems, think risotto is complicated or difficult. It really isn't. There's a lot of dogma attached to this family of dishes, but what follows is my own view.

Having made hundreds of risottos (I shy away from using the plural risotti - it just doesn't feel right), some from recipes, more often from what I had to hand, I can present a core formula, whose ingredients are essential. From there, you can create many variants by adding extras.

Core risotto
  • Risotto rice (arborio, carnaroli, vialone nano)
  • Stock (vegetable, chicken, beef, veal, fish or shellfish)
  • Olive oil (I use extra virgin for everything nowadays) and/or butter
  • Hard to semi-hard strong cheese (Parmesan, pecorino, or a vegetarian substitute, even Emmental, Gruyère, etc)
  • Wine or wine vinegar
  • Onion and/or garlic, finely chopped
  • Heat the oil and/or some of the butter in a non-stick pan (not a frying pan); add the onion/garlic. Fry until soft and golden.
  • Add the rice, fry for a minute or so.
  • Add the wine (enough to just cover the rice), or a dash of wine vinegar
  • Add enough stock to cover, if using vinegar, or wait until the wine has been absorbed.
  • Keep adding stock to cover the rice once the previous stock has been absorbed. Continue until the rice is tender but retains a little bite.
  • Add more oil/butter, and grated cheese, and stir through. Serve immediately.
  • Quantities are dependent on how much you want to make - it's down to how much rice you put in the pan. Just keep adding liquid until it's done - never let it dry out completely, or it will burn.
  • The type of rice you use matters - it has to be risotto rice, or at the very least a similar kind, such as paella rice. I even used sushi rice once, and it was partially successful (but went much softer than is really appropriate). The grains must to be short and fat, which produce a creamy liquid but retain a certain bite. I can't say I have noticed much difference between the different types of risotto rice - some people claim to, but it seems a minor concern.
  • My use of wine vinegar is unorthodox, but I don't usually have wine in, whereas I always have white or red wine vinegar in my cupboard. A dash adds a sharp complexity, similar to wine, but it is easy to overdo it - a dash is sufficient. If using wine, it's nice to serve the rest of the bottle with the risotto, so use something you'll like. White is more traditional, red works fine but produces a risotto with a strange, murky colour; rosé might be okay, but sweet wines are not suitable. Go for something not-too-assertive - you don't want to overpower the rest of the ingredients. Dry white vermouth is fine, and a light dry cider or sake might work.
  • Homemade stock produces a subtler result, and you may need extra salt. Stock cubes are fine for most situations. Homemade chicken stock tends to be glutinous, and the result is a smoother-textured risotto. In general, any stock will do.
  • Oil and butter are best. Oil for the initial frying (maybe a dab of butter), and butter at the end to stir through. This makes the texture smoother and richer. I often drizzle oil over at the end; remember, this is not health food. Flavoured oils can be nice at the end - truffle for complexity, chilli or garlic for zing, herbs for fragrance. Extra virgin is best, but for the initial frying, you could use a lower-grade oil.
  • Onion is pretty much essential. I find it adds a savoury complexity and a second texture that makes the dish. Garlic adds some flavour, but is nowhere near as important. You could use shallots, or even leek if pushed.
  • Finally, cheese. This adds yet more fat, but bumps up the umami, and saves the need for heavy seasoning. If I'm using stock cubes, and even sometimes unsalted homemade stock, I add no extra salt, as the cheese provides a salty-savouriness that suffices. It must be strong, hard, and not too fatty. Cheddar would separate and go greasy, without properly mixing through. Mascarpone or ricotta add a good mouthfeel, but are bland. Parmesan is easy, but other cheeses like a good aged Emmental or Gruyère work well, and if I have several cheeses in, I'll often use more than one kind.

So, that's the basic recipe. I almost always add more stuff, based primarily on what I have in the kitchen. Here are some guidelines:
  • Meat, fish, shellfish: I prefer prawns to chicken, and these two are better than most other meats. If using, add at the beginning, fry with the onion. Frozen seafood is fine - add it halfway through. A rack or fillet of lamb is nice served alongside a simple risotto.
  • Vegetables: a great risotto needs no meat at all. Try anything (except maybe aubergine), but don't use more than a couple of kinds, or the purity of flavour and texture will be lost. Add peppers, mushrooms and the like, chopped, at the beginning. Squashes and pumpkins, very finely chopped, along with broccoli and cauliflower, roughly chopped, go in with the stock so they are tender by the end. Fresh and frozen peas and beans can go in with the last of the stock, so they don't overcook. Dried mushrooms can be soaked in the stock to add complexity.
  • Saffron is traditional for risotto alla Milanese; soak some strands in the stock beforehand, and strain out before adding if you don't want them in the finished dish. No other spices are really appropriate, but you could experiment.
  • Fresh herbs are great - for most, finely chop and add right at the end when serving. Try tarragon, chives, parsley, basil, chervil, thyme, or combinations of these. Oregano might work, and rosemary, though this may be best added during cooking. Sage can be fried with the onion, or fried and added at the end, or both.
Essentially, risotto is about simplicity. It's rich, savoury, and balanced. Unlike many other rice dishes, such as paella and nasi goreng, less is more here. So long as the core elements are there, only a couple of extras need be added to produce a great result. I usually eat it unaccompanied, but it can serve as one part of a more complex meal. More than most dishes, risotto can be tweaked and varied endlessly. It's never going be to low-fat, and the basic ingredients are not the cheapest, but for satisfaction, comfort and taste, it's hard to beat.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

This Season's Must-Have Cocktail

I recently visited London, a city I used to live and work in. I met up with a couple of friends, and ate some good food.

I also went for cocktails one evening. This was unplanned, but fun. My friend and I had just eaten in Chinatown, and wandered towards Covent Garden, past a place I've seen before but never visited (its location is too obvious to be good, or so I thought). We went in.

For such a touristy area, just off Trafalgar Square, it was not crammed, just nicely busy, and had a very chilled atmosphere. The décor was sophisticated, the staff friendly and quite attentive.

Happy hour meant cocktails were £3.75 - excellent for anywhere, but particularly central London. I started with a Vanilla Cherry Royale, described as "Cherry infused vanilla liqueur charged with Prosecco & Cherry Heering", which turned out to be rather too sweet and confected, though still drinkable. My friend had a Berry Cosmopolitan, "Absolut Kurrant [sic] & Absolut Raspberry [sic] shaken with Chambord black raspberry liqueur, fresh lime juice & a
dash of sugar syrup", which was nice, but strong-tasting. My second was also sparkling, a Pear & Rosemary Bellini (I was excited to see such unusual flavours on the happy hour menu), which was delicious, but I couldn't taste the rosemary (my friend could). Hers, however, was a triumph: Katana, described thus: "Muddled cucumber & mint shaken with Bombay Sapphire gin, pressed apple juice, fresh lime & a dash of sugar syrup."

It tasted so fresh I wished I'd chosen it, so I decided to recreate it at home. I'm planning several group events this summer, nominally barbecues, and a small selection of exquisite cocktails will fit the bill.

I don't dictate spirit brands; the bar chose Bombay Sapphire, which is a perfectly acceptable gin, but anything in the £15-20 price range would do (Tanqueray, Plymouth, Gordon's white label, etc). I'm currently using Blackwood's 2006 vintage (it has an uncommonly short list of botanicals, and frankly I'm doubtful any vintage character would show through in a spirit, but it's one of the best gins I've tasted). I've fiddled with various combinations, and here's my take on the recipe:

1 measure (25ml) sugar syrup
1 3/4 measures cucumber-mint-lime juice (see below)
2 1/4 measures pressed apple juice
2 measures gin
(makes 175ml, 2 UK units of alcohol)

- Shake all ingredients over ice, strain into a martini glass. Garnish (I'd err towards something with a contrasting colour; peony petals work well, or roses later in the summer - the bar chose a pansy. Otherwise a slice of cucumber and/or a spring of mint)
- To make the juice, purée a handful of mint (I'm using apple mint and spearmint as they grow in my garden, but it makes little difference), 1/3-1/2 cucumber, and the juice of a large lime using a blender or hand-blender; pass through a fine sieve. This makes around 200ml, enough for 4 1/2 cocktails.

Admittedly, the recipe above makes a large portion - you could adjust it down to fit a smaller glass. The colour is a cloudy pale green, the taste the essence of freshness and balance. I could drink it all day, barring the price and effects of the alcohol (though I reckon a good non-alcoholic version could be made - omit the gin, and substitute good mineral water, maybe).

On price, my gin cost around £13.50, which gives 14 double measures, the apple juice £1.50 a litre (both were on special offer), the limes 28p each (you can find cheaper, though these were large and juicy, so one lime does 4-5 portions), the cucumber probably around £1, the sugar is a storecupboard ingredient (I make my own syrup as required), and the mint was free. Even buying the last two, and spending £15 on the gin it works out at around £1.50 per portion.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

In Praise of Pumpkins I

If one vegetable sums up how far I've come in my tastes, it's the pumpkin. The only thing I'd've done with one until quite recently is carve it - although since Hallowe'en was a fairly minor affair when and where I grew up, I don't remember even doing that, until my sister left home and started hosting spooky parties every year.

In fact, even now, most of my friends don't eat pumpkin, even if they bought it for carving; one or two of the more adventurous might make soup with the flesh of a Jack O'lantern. It's perhaps ironic that butternut squash, which does not grow reliably in the British climate, is much more pupular - but then imported butternuts are available all year round in supermakets here, and are quite cheap despite all those food miles. I like butternut squash, and it could be substituted into any of the recipes in part II, but probably not the 'beer' below. The same holds for other winter squashes - last autumn I got blue kabocha and adorable acorn squashes in Morrisons, and a reasonable variety are available in markets and ethnic shops in London (and doubtless eslewhere) when in season (in fact, there is a fabulous grocer in Penge - nominally Turkish, I believe - that sells the large, blue-green-skinned kabochas pretty much year-round). Inside, they are all similar, but I love the variety of shapes and colours - they are very decorative, and will keep well at room temperature, preferably cooler, for many weeks - a great seasonal alternative to flowers, in my opinion.

The one type that is not the same is the 'carving pumpkin', bright orange, ribbed, and usually larger than 'culinary' pumpkins, and ubiquitous for the last couple of weeks of October. The flesh is pale, far more watery, and quite fibrous. The other types, for eating, tend to have denser, smoother, more richly-coloured flesh with much more flavour. I didn't know this last year, but I bought a fair few from October onwards, and learned the difference. That's why I chose to make pumpkin 'ale', because the flesh of the larger carving pumpkins, while plentiful, didn't warrant any serious culinary use. I found an old Welsh recipe, whereby a pumpkin is opened and hollowed-out as if to carve, then filled with sugar, which dissolves the flesh, and topped-up when necessary. The sugar ferments, and produces a weak, sweet, probably quite bland alcoholic beverage. I didn't want to go to the trouble, and I suspect this recipe would make quite a mess as the skin goes soft, although my friend's sister, whose Hallowe'en party I attended last year, had followed a similar route in making spiced, sweetened pumpkin rum. I chose the easier, but still quite messy, method of cubing the flesh, puréeing it, and straining over white sugar. I added wine yeast, the juice of a lemon and an orange (as I originally intended to make wine, I wanted good acid balance), and instead of hops, the fragrant astrigency of bay leaves and juniper berries.

As an aside, the defining characteristic of a country beer, as opposed to a country wine, seems to be the speed of fermentation. [Although a further distinction is often the type of sugar used - brown, muscovado, or molasses, for beers, castor sugar for wines - this is not always the case, and either may be made from any kind of fruit, vegetable, or herb, with or without aromatic herbal additions.] I came to this conclusion after wading through a good couple of hundred recipes, looking for inspiration, and wondering about the prevailing nomenclature. A wine is fermented slowly, at a fairly low temperature, for weeks or months, until it has 'worked itself out' (i.e., the yeast has fermented as much sugar into ethanol as it can); a beer is fermented for a few days to a couple of weeks, and may thereby retain natural effervescence, and this is done at a higher temperature in order to attain low to moderate alcohol levels. Or at least, that's my interpretation - the logical conclusion is that there is a continuum of home-brews, and whether you call it a beer or a wine (or an ale, for that matter), is entirely up to you (I should point out that shop-bought drinks are usually much easier to define).

I was anxious to mimic the sensation of a light beer with my improvisation here, so I added the bay and juniper as they share certain aromatic compounds with hops (myrcene, pinene); I also kept the sugar fairly low, to prevent the mixture being too sickly; I wanted it to be ready in a few days, so I could take some to the Hallowe'en party. I fermented it at a high temperature, probably around 25-30°C, leaving the demijohn by a fire, turning occasionally. The final experiment was with effervescence - a success, despite my reservations. I decanted the beer into stoneware bottles, stoppered with wired-down corks (normal glass bottles might have exploded). The result was a light gold, cloudy, fizzy, fragrant, somewhat astringent brew, refreshing if a little odd. I reckon I could get used to it. In any case, it demonstrated the versatility of the pumpkin - if there is a glut next autumn (I intend to grow my own this year), I will certainly revisit and refine the idea...