In my efforts to shop with a shorter supply chain and closer to the supplier, I have tried my local Food Assembly. This is a network of local organisations which allow local suppliers to deliver food to organised distribution points after you order on line. I used https://thefoodassembly.com/en/assemblies/8012/products Putney Food assembly. organised by the lovely Floriane and supplying amazing fresh food, bread, dairy and fruit. Oh and there’s jams, jellies and chutneys too, one particular jam coming from as close as a garden in Mortlake. Price wise, well, for the fruit and veg, frankly, no more expensive than a supermarket, but of greatly superior quality. The preserves were a little more expensive than the mid range brands, but in the same ball park as the higher end brands.
It was great fun picking up the order, as it was all set out in a room in a pub on the embankment in Putney, for collection between 6.30 and 8.30. Easy parking (although I went on the bus) and you can have a drink while it’s all happening (hence me going on the bus….). The quality of produce was superb – as if I’d picked it from my own garden (I wish) and the cheese I tried was wonderful. I am sorry to report that that evening we put away the whole 100g of Sussex Slipcote Soft Sheep Cheese with Garlic and Chives with celery and multi seed sourdough, both from the Assembly.
Although it is strictly speaking a bit early in the season, I had ordered celery which I love for not just its flavour, but also its versatility. The stems were a little on the slender side but the flavour was wonderful – a mile away from flaccid supermarket stalks. The new ingredient for me was Rainbow Chard; I’ve had it served in Italy and I do like the flavour but in the UK, have always been deterred from buying it by the price and by the fact that in the supermarket, it looks faded, dusty and ready for its bus pass. Anyway, this was positively juvenile in what I can only describe as a huge bouquet and squeaky fresh. Couldn’t wait to try it, so after having it using Nigel Slater’s gorgeous recipe for Chard with caramelised onions and sultanas (in Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries Volume III), I still had lots left.
I remembered that I’d had it in a quiche in Treviso about three years ago so had a rummage around for recipes. There wasn’t one that I liked the sound of in its entirety, so this is very much my own recipe, following fairly standard quiche principles which I have tweaked to satisfy my likes and if I’m honest, what I had in the fridge. My Rainbow Chard had brilliant gold and ruby stems which was criminal to chop up completely so I used eight of them as spokes around the quiche. Very attractive looking but will cook them for longer next time as they could have done with being a bit more tender. And when you strip the leaves form the stalks, do make sure you get rid of any nasty stringy bits.
When it comes to pastry, I prefer to use a richer shortcrust pastry, using butter and egg yolk with a small quantity of ice cold water as it always turns out very short and crisp. It is a tad more difficult to work but I find it do-able if it’s left to rest for at least an hour. I haven’t included the recipe here, as you probably have your own favourites but the quantity I used was from 170g of plain flour and 100g butter.
I am bit late posting part three of my Supermarket Siesta as we’ve got builders in. Not here, thank heavens, but I had forgotten how much time it takes to choose bathrooms, especially when there are two of you trying to make the decision. It is quite amazing how strongly one can feel about taps, or should I say mixers. It is a curiously British habit to have separate taps in the bathroom and frankly idiotic, although we did agree on that. Anyway, this is not the purpose of this blog but I do feel better having got that off my chest, thank you.
You’ll know by now that I’ve been taking a day from the weekend and comparing costs between shopping from a non-supermarket source and an on-line supermarket. So far, the previous two blogs have been in favour of the non-supermarket source, cost-wise, but to be honest, I have been waiting for this to end! It almost seems too good to be true so this weekend, especially because we were having cod, I was expecting this to be the week it ended. Cod is rightly now an expensive fish; cod stocks were abused for too long and we should have to pay a premium for this beautiful fish, not to mention the fact that trawler men face danger every time they set out to sea. It therefore makes perfect sense to me that its price is where it is.
Anyway, here is what Sunday looked like for us:
Jersey milk yogurt
Pan fried cod finished with beurre blanc
Sweet potatoes roasted with thyme and garlic
Cavallo nero finished with olive oil and nutmeg
We had been given gorgeous chocolate from guidogobino.it in Turin, so that was dessert. Too many, in truth…..although I will post about them another time, as their chocolate is out of this world, even for a non-sweet tooth person like me.
Anyway, bearing in mind ingredients like olive oil, thyme, anchovies, salt and pepper are for me, store cupboard ingredients so I haven’t included them, I was absolutely astonished this week by the price difference. I had to have my maths checked (that not being my strong point…) to ensure I’d got this right. All the ingredients came from lovely Farmdrop.com as with the builders etc, I just didn’t have the bandwidth to shop around or go to Borough Market. Which actually, kind of makes another point; if you’re time-poor, you don’t have to rely on a supermarket when there are other suppliers around who can deliver flavour, cost efficiency and ethical supply chains.
So, Sunday cost us £22.15 and had I sourced from the same on-line supermarket I have used for comparison so far, the bill would have been £30.68. That (I am reliably informed!) is a staggering 38% more expensive.
I guess if your budget isn’t an issue, then this is irrelevant for you but ethical supply chains are, I hope an issue for many of us and flavour and freshness are surely top of any cook’s list? Shopping more closely to the supplier gives much fresher ingredients and I have noticed a discernible difference in the flavour of the food I’m serving. I can assure you it isn’t because of any step-change in my cooking abilities and in fact, in may ways, I am preparing food more simply. I just don’t need to make my home cooking complicated when I am using such beautiful ingredients – life is better all round.
So, the recipe this week is something I mentioned a week or so ago – Piedmont Peppers – and we do eat it quite a lot this time of year as all the ingredients come together seasonally. You can make other times of the year but the ingredients won’t be seasonal, will have probably covered many food miles and this will be reflected in the flavour.
It works well with green salad and good bread as a light lunch and also as a starter. It is easy to multiply up to feed lots of people in a buffet, or to include as a table of anti pasti if you are serving Italian style.
I first cooked this many years ago, using Elizabeth David’s recipe but have been fortunate enough over the years, to see this cooked in Piedmont home kitchens, so have modified my way of doing things. This, however, is very much my way of doing this lovely dish but I encourage you to experiment to find you own favourite way.
Serves: 2 - 4 depending on how/when you serve Cooking Time: 45 minutes
2 red peppers (look for heavy, fleshy specimens with the stalks intact)
3 San Marzano tomatoes, skinned
4 anchovy fillets (make sure you rinse them well if you are using salted)
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
fresh basil leaves
extra virgin olive oil (I like Ligurian oil for this but if you prefer a more peppery oil, that's fine too)
freshly milled black pepper
an oven proof baking dish or baking tray with a lip
Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees c/180 fan
Slice the peppers lengthwise, trying to slice through the stalk and preserving it as part of the pepper
Remove all the seeds and white pith
Sit in the oven proof dish, propping them up against each other if you have any wobbly specimens
Pour a couple of teaspoons of oil and an anchovy fillet into each pepper
Add a few slices of garlic and a torn basil leaf to each pepper
Season with black pepper
Halve the tomatoes lengthwise and add to the peppers
We like a good amount of tomato, so cut them to make them fit, although you do not want chopped tomato
Pour over a little more oil to moisten the tomato and tuck in more basil if you can
Put in the oven for about 45 - 50 minutes, until the peppers are a little blackened round the edges and they look relaxed and wrinkly
Best served warm or at room temperature; too hot or too cold and the flavours are lost
There are squabbles in our house about who gets to mop up the lovely savoury juices and I would implore you not to waste them.
I have tried this with yellow peppers - nope, doesn't work. The full, red ripeness is needed for the flavour to be at its best. I have used yellow peppers but then altered the ingredients to include capers and black olives but then they are not Piedmont Peppers! Lovely, but not Piedmont Peppers as I was told in no uncertain terms when in Turin.
This is such a simple recipe, I am wary of actually posting it but a good friend said that she’d never thought of it, so why not?
I think this is something that you can throw together from things you mostly have in the house anyway, plus the fact that you can add all kinds of bits you might find lurking in the fridge. I recently used a few scraps of left over Parma ham; any small pieces of salami are also good but I am reluctant to use anything fishy as i just can’t imagine how it might test. Although it might be good with lovely Morecambe Bay shrimps?
Apologies too, for the dayglo cheese; I was using up a bit of left over Red Leicester and it does come up bright! Tasted good though and that’s what counts.
The idea for this blog came when I realised, after leaving my corporate life, how much food I was throwing away, if I had over-provisioned (that happened SO often). It was therefore a stark reminder of my old life when towards the end of last week I was faced with leeks, feta cheese, an astonishingly pretty striped aubergine, a couple of San Marzano tomatoes and the dregs of the carton of creme frâiche. A rummage in the dry goods drawer also revealed a sad, almost empty bag of pearl barley. This post therefore, is not quite episode 3 of Supermarket Siesta which follows later this week, but I felt did talk to the origin of this blog.
The weather had begun to feel more like autumn, although not yet cold enough to trigger my soup-making (although enough to make me feel like Kanga counting Roo’s vests). So what to make? When in doubt, consult Elizabeth David is my motto and after half an hour in her company, and an espresso, I had inspiration, although I have to say I made most of this up as I went along.
So here are two simple recipes that are quick, reasonably priced and can be dressed up and down to suit either a solo lunch or supper at home, or serve as starters or main courses. I have a number of vegetarian friends and these work well for them, although I’m still working with a limited repertoire for vegans. I don’t seem to be able to get past using eggs, cheese and butter; my fault I know and I probably need to find the time to do a whole lot more research.
I think the stuffed aubergines will be a regular through the autumn and winter and I’m looking forward to playing around with the flavours.
2 sprigs thyme, leaves stripped and chopped (I don’t always bother to chop as I don’t mind seeing the little leaves in the finished recipe)
0.25 tsp ground cumin
finely grated zest of half a lemon
1 dsp capers, rinsed and chopped
40 - 50 g feta cheese
2 tbsp dried breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly milled black pepper
A greased oven tray
Pre heat the oven to 200 degrees C/180 degrees fan
Set the pearl barley to cook over a moderate flame until al dente then drain
Cut out the flesh of the aubergine, chopping it into 1cm dice. Leave a slim shell of aubergine skin and set aside.
I find an old grapefruit knife remarkably useful for this operation. Try your best not to pierce the shell as it will leak horribly.
Heat the oil in a thick based pan and soften the shallot and garlic, without letting them colour
Add the aubergine flesh and cumin and cook until the aubergine begins to soften
Add the tomato, thyme and barley and mix well
Allow to simmer until the mixture is quite dry - the tomato juices must evaporate to stop the mixture being sloppy and also to intensify the flavours
Add the grated lemon zest and capers and check the seasoning
Fill the two aubergine shells, packing the mixture quite firmly
Crumble over the feta cheese and finish with the breadcrumbs
Cook for 25 - 30 minutes until the stuffing is hot, cheese melting and the aubergine shells a bit wrinkly
I prefer to eat this warm rather than hot and like it with either a simple green salad or buttered savoy cabbage.
Feel free to experiment with the spices here; I can imagine cinnamon being good and to shake things in a different flavour direction, ground cardamom and/or fennel seeds. Just thought - dried porcini mushrooms, soaked and finely chopped could be good too.
I had a bit of a challenge to my Watchful principles last weekend, as I discovered three elderly bananas that were quite beyond eating “as is”, and for some reason I had neglected to eat most of the Discovery apples that had been delivered by Farmdrop.com. I can’t really explain that latter event, as I adore those apples and they have such a short season. It might have had something to do with my stuffing myself with a friend’s homegrown raspberries and the delivery, direct from Italy, of the most fragrant melon, another gift from a friend – lucky me!
Anyway, these poor apples had become a tad on the wizened side, so I made Spiced Apples (elsewhere on this site), not thinking they’d also come to the rescue in a banana emergency.
I have a fairly large collection of cookery and food books, together with favourite websites and years and years worth of good, old-fashioned clippings from magazines and newspapers. I wish I could tell you that the latter are in apple pie order and that I can lay my hands on exactly what I want in a trice. Nope. Not a hope. This lamentable lack of organisation came back to haunt me when I wanted to save these poor bananas from the bin and had a vague recollection of a good recipe from some years ago. I will cut a long and frustrating story short, by saying it took me nearly an hour to find what I wanted. Yes, there were other recipes more readily available, but stubbornly, I wanted that particular recipe that turned out to be snipped out of an American newspaper eleven years ago. It probably wouldn’t have taken me an hour if I had remained on task, but I kept discovering long forgotten gems, some of which revealed just how rusty my once fairly fluent French has become. Anyway, back to bananas.
The recipe is straightforward enough, in fact it is so simple it barely counts as cooking. Assuming, of course, one has all the ingredients…..now, I am an incurable recipe tweaker, except when it comes to cakes and baking generally. I don’t seem to have to same instinct for baking as I do for other areas of cookery, so tend to tweak only minor ingredients. I am not sure, however, it counts as minor when I discover I only have slightly more than half the required peeled weight of bananas. At this point I had greased the tin, was heating the oven and had weighed out all the other ingredients so opting out wasn’t an option. And Edoardo was expecting cake…….I sympathise, I get a bit like that when I’m expecting cheese…..
Anyway, for once I decided to tweak on a more major scale and made up the weight by using Spiced Apples that were drained of the juice that is inevitable with them. I did wonder if they would make it a bit too damp but decided to keep a close eye on the cake in the oven. For me, it is a minor miracle that it turned out perfectly: moist, light and full of flavour. I might even make this more often (cue for E’s eyes to light up – he complains he is cake-deprived normally).
I have written up what I did, but I suspect you could tinker around with the proportions, so long as it added up to 225g. And it wouldn’t have to be the Spiced Apple recipe; I might try it with raw grated apple and increase the spice content a bit. If you do try that, please let me know how it works out.
One last note; in the picture I was worried to see what looks like a lump of uncooked cake mixture but was relieved when it turned out to be a piece of apple!
I hope you enjoy this – we now call it “Leftovers Cake” but it’s not a very appetising title!
Last week I started my response to the Supermarket Siesta challenge and I have to say, everything about it talks to my desire to move away from (my) mindless on line ordering or wandering in a supermarket. As I said also last week, I am not going to declare supermarkets instruments of the devil (although I can think of a couple of brands that do approach that status), but I am finding using farmdrop.com and Borough Market (to name but two), does make me plan meals better and think more clearly about the seasonality, balance, flavours and economy of what we’re eating.
Yes, it takes a bit of time a couple of times a week to do that planning but in truth, it’s time I look forward to, as it allows me to think about what’s seasonal and then rummage around, either in my food library (I’m going to write about that soon) or in my head, to find solutions. Sometimes I am beguiled by something so appealing when I’m shopping that I do click or buy and then think afterwards about what I’m going to make! On reflection though, that is exactly what I do when we’re in Italy, so interestingly, I am moving my UK habits closer to those I have in Italy.
Our menu for Sunday looked like this:
Jersey milk yogurt with blueberries
Sourdough toast with blackberry and gin jam
Lunch we had out, so doesn’t count here
Piedmont peppers (will write this up soon)
Salmon fillet wrapped in Parma ham with bay leaves (ditto!)
Chargrilled golden zucchini with lemon, fennel seed and basil dressing
Spiced apples (recipe elsewhere on this site) with creme fâiche
My bill for this lot from non-supermarket suppliers was £27.20 and the same on-line service that I used last week for comparison came to £34.91. I have not included store cupboard ingredients such as anchovies, fresh basil or garlic as I have those to hand all the time. If it’s not basil season, it will be thyme or rosemary, both of which obligingly supply the kitchen all year round.
The most remarkable price differentials came with the Sourdough bread (£3.20 versus £5.33 weight for weight), two organic red peppers (£2.00 versus £6.00) and the San Marzano tomatoes (£2.70 versus £3.99 by weight). I used lovely farmdrop.com for some items and others came from traders within Borough Market.
Also, I had made enough Piedmont Peppers and Chargrilled Zucchini for us to have them for lunch on Monday with bread and a bit of goat’s cheese.
Chargrilled Golden Zucchini with Lemon, Fennel Seed and Basil Dressing
500g golden zucchini, or indeed any fresh looking ones you can get
olive oil for brushing
1 clove garlic
100ml extra virgin olive oil
freshly squeezed juice of half a large lemon
quarter teaspoon of fennel seeds
fresh basil leaves
If the zucchini are quite large, the skins can be a bit tough so just scrape a vegetable peeler down it to give a striped effect
Dispose of the stalk and slice into 2 - 3ml thick slices
You can either produce “coins” (hence the word “zucchini” in the first place), or on the diagonal, or even lengthways; do what pleases you
Brush them with olive oil but don’t soak them
Heat a griddle pan until hot but not smoking - you’re dealing with delicate zucchini here, not a chest-beating steak
Add a few slices at a time but don’t over-crowd the pan or you’ll start to get too much steam kicking up
Once each slice has nice clear stripes, turn them over; for me, they are then done when they have gone floppy and have good chargrilling marks on them
Remove to a platter and spoon over the dressing, building up the platter in layers as the zucchini become readyFor the dressing:
Crush the garlic with sea salt under the blade of a knife and put into a small bowl
Gently crush the fennel seeds, just enough to allow the fragrance to release more easily and add to the bowl
Pour in the extra virgin olive oil and whisk briskly
Add lemon juice to your taste; I quite like a lemony sharpness to counteract the smoothness of the grilled vegetable and we were having it with salmon which is a rich fish
Add freshly milled black pepper to taste
Once you have layered and dressed all your zucchini, finish with torn basil and a final flourish of oil
You can also include aubergines in with this and I do still salt and drain them first. Habit, I suppose, as we are told that modern varieties aren't bitter. Slice them a little thicker, say 3 - 4 ml, and they need a little longer on the griddle, too. Later in the autumn, I add a little ground cumin to the dressing, if I am using aubergine for a warm flavour. Finely chopped chilli also works well here in the dressing.
If you were to ask me, I think the first fruit I can remember eating is an apple. I also seem to think of them as always having been around all year, whereas when I was a child, fruit definitely had its season. Strawberries are irretrievably linked to tennis for me and their fragrance reminds me of my mother being glued to the (black and white!) TV during Wimbledon. Tangerines, as they were then, were Christmas, although we seem to see every variation on small citrus now.
Is there, however, more of a workhorse of the fruit bowl than an apple? Admittedly bananas work hard for their living too, but it terms of sheer versatility, the humble apple wins out every time for me.
Sadly, this very versatility led to this unsung hero being bred for volume, size and keeping qualities. We went through a very low period in the seventies and eighties when, unless you grew your own, eating apples were frankly pretty grim. The average supermarkets offered Golden Delicious, Macintosh Red and Granny Smith. Personally I find all of these unpleasant as raw eaters, either because of flavour or texture, but Golden Delicious and Granny Smith do cook well.
Many of the old British, French and Italian species became at risk as producers grubbed up old orchards to plant more profitable types. Mercifully, and largely because of the efforts of Slow Food and in the UK, the Royal Horticultural Society and its members, some enlightened retailers (take a bow, Waitrose) and a general increase in the public’s demand for flavour, many breeds were brought back from the brink.
It is now relatively easy to find scrumptious seasonal apples such as Discovery, although until I started to do some research around this lovely apple, I didn’t realise it is in fact a modern fruit. It was found in the late 1940’s in Langham, Essex and is a child of the luscious Worcester Pearmain. I absolutely adore the fragrant crispness and almost strawberry-like flavour of the Discovery, BUT it is a seasonal being and in fact becomes flabby in both texture and flavour if stored for too long. They tend also to be a tad inconsistent in size but frankly this doesn’t bother me and I actually enjoy the process of selecting the individual apples that appeal to me.
Another fragrant apple that I love is Pink Lady; it is also a modern apple, developed in the late 20th Century, in Western Australia, from a liaison between Golden Delicious and Lady Williams. It has the remarkable capacity to be consistent and until recently, I don’t think I have ever had a disappointing Pink Lady. That changed recently when I had some quite unpleasant Argentinian apples – the texture was too mealy for me. Perhaps they had been stored too long. And did you know that Pink Lady is a trademark? I didn’t; her horticultural handle is Cripps Pink and she has an equally lovely cousin called Sundowner (also a trademark), who is horticulturally Cripps Red. She, however, is not so easy to find.
In terms of other modern apples, Jazz is a likeable apple that works well in the Spiced Apple recipe below. Oh and this is another apple that operates under a nom de guerre; it is really Scifresh.
Braeburn is another apple that you will see in quantity in supermarkets and it was an apple in the right place at the right time. It became commercially viable at a point when the public wanted more in terms of flavour than Golden Delicious or Granny Smith could provide. At best, it is a crisp, fragrant and deeply flavoured apple. It does however, to my mind, have a major flaw and that is that it is hugely variable in terms of quality. Personally, I have had too many Braeburn disappointments. Rather than waste them, however, if you are unfortunate enough to have a disappointing batch, use them for the Spiced recipe and just up the spices!
The last eating apple that I want to talk about it is the wonderful Cox’s Orange Pippin. This is an older fruit, developed, it is said in 1825, and with many progeny. I love these apples when they are in prime season, becoming a tad mealy when old. That is though, a wonderful reason to eat seasonally, as it is at its best when from British orchards.
You may wonder why I have not mentioned the noble Bramley Apple in this post. Well, it is indeed a noble apple with an impeccable history of service in the kitchen. I stopped using it quite so ubiquitously when I made a conscious decision to reduce the amount of sugar I use in cooking. As I started to use other apples, I also realised that I actually prefer to eat my cooked apples when they have retained some shape and I can still see the slices. Don’t get me wrong, if I making apple sauce for roast pork, I would still use a Bramley as I do like a cloud of fluffy apple in those circumstances.
6 eating apples, peeled, cored and cut into slices about 2mm thick
juice and finely grated zest of 1 orange
zest of 1 lemon (I like to peel this with a potato peeler and then cut into julienne strips; you may have a julienne cutter but either way, I like clearly defined strips of lemon peel)
1 tbsp honey
3 pieces of star anise
1 large stick of cinnamon, broken in two
half teaspoon of powdered cinnamon
Put everything into a thick based pan or casserole and simmer gently for about 30 minutes
Stir occasionally and watch that it doesn’t catch
You may need to add a small quantity of water, depending on how juicy the orange is
The final result should be tender but still well shaped slices, with a slightly syrupy juice
This is scrumptious hot, warm and cold and I serve it with either ice cream, creme fraiche or yogurt
It makes a fabulous filling for a pie or a crumble and can have all kinds of ingredients added (see above)
Edoardo is fond of this for breakfast with yogurt and seeds and I have to say I agree with him.
This recipe rose out of necessity. I had a bag of eating apples (I think they were Braeburns, but can’t actually remember), I had tried one as a raw eater but it wasn’t terribly pleasant. Well, I was at the outset of watching my budget and my conscience, so it was unthinkable to just discard the other five or so apples, even for the benefit of our local birds and foxes. I didn’t want to shop specifically for anything else to make these apples edible so instead I rummaged in the pantry. I think I have said before that pantry is a metaphor - I would dearly love a larder but have to make do with two large drawers and two shelves as my pantry. One day…….
Anyway, this recipe is made from ingredients I nearly always have in store, but I have found that I can experiment with this and use sultanas, raisins, seeds, dried apricots, prunes to add flavour to apples. This is also an extremely economical recipe if you make this with blemished apples which are often sold in supermarkets for very low prices, so do experiment. Also, you can make this with however many apples you happen to have, just scale the other ingredients up or down. It also freezes well for about three months. In truth, it so simple I feel a bit of a fraud posting it here, but friends I’ve shared it with have all liked it and mostly said “oh I never thought of doing that…”, so I’m hoping it’s not too much of a fraud!
We love wild red rice but gosh, it’s expensive! If you find cheap wild rice, I’d look very carefully at the contents as you may find that there is a small percentage of the contents mingled in with cheaper rice. My favourite is Organico Wild Red Rice, grown by the Picco family in the northern Po valley. The first time I encountered the rice fields of northern Italy, I felt as if I had been whizzed off to Asia, as I found it a strange experience to encounter this landscape in Europe, but of course this crop has been grown in Italy for centuries. The Rice Exchange in Vercelli is testament to the business – don’t be deceived by the modernity of the building; there has been an Exchange in Vercelli for centuries.
Flying over the rice fields of Northern Italy exposes the lattice of man made irrigation canals that date back, for the most part, to the mid 1800s but I have written elsewhere, at some length (too long – Edoardo) about the fascinating history of rice cultivation in northern Italy, so I shall shut up here. If you are interested in reading about the hows and whys of rice in Italy, nip over to the pages called Riso con Riso.
Anyway, back to the food. Saturday dinner was roast cod, peperonata, spinach and wild red rice. We have left-overs of rice and of peperonata, so what to do? The peperonata was easy as it makes a scrumptious if unconventional sauce for pasta. It works better if the peppers are sliced smaller – easily done in the pan with a wooden spoon if the peppers have been cooked for long enough – and I add more chopped basil. A suggestion of chilli (dried is perfectly fine) can also change the character of the dish so that it doesn’t feel quite so like left-overs.
The rice sat in its dish, staring balefully at me. I suppose there might have been a couple of heaped tablespoons so not a huge amount but no way was it going in the bin. Or even out for the birds…it’s May, they’re not starving. So, after a rummage in the fridge, a sort of Greek salad emerged.
Left-over red rice - about two or three heaped tablespoons
1 large salad onion or shallot, finely chopped
3cm piece of cucumber, peeled and chopped into 5mm dice (I also take out the wet seedy bit in the middle but up to you)
Half a red pepper, again chopped into 5mm dice
Half a dozen green olives, sliced into rings (they were already pitted)
About twenty chives, scissored into 2mm pieces
Chopped flat leaf parsley - about two tablespoons
Finely grated zest of half a lemon
100 g (ish) feta ( I happened to have some Waitrose barrel aged left but use what you have)
Half a large clove of fresh garlic, crushed with sea salt under the blade of a knife
Juice of half a lemon
Olive oil - about four or five tablespoons
Mix the ingredients together using a fork rather than a spoon (means you won’t break the grains), to ensure even distribution and then mix up the dressing, tasting as you go.
We like small pieces in a salad like this, and I prefer the vegetables to be proportion to the size of the rice grains, but frankly that’s just my preference. If you like bigger chunks, use them! Also, use what you have in the fridge and in truth, on another day, this may have looked very different. I can imagine using left over broccoli, asparagus, grated carrot, walnuts, toasted pine nuts, orange in place of lemon (in which case, I think black olives would be lovely) and replacing the feta with shredded cold chicken, duck (oh yes - lovely with black olives and orange) or beef. It could be spiced with a scrape of cinnamon and sultanas for cold lamb…..I could go on and fear I might, so I shall stop and go and eat it. I am thinking that a glass of cold white wine (a personal favourite is Gavi) might go quite well……..
It is my observation that in Italy people do cook more from scratch, in all income brackets and across all the age groups. And EVERYONE can make a risotto (or at least everyone I know)! I know that some people regard it as a bit of a monster, but honestly, it isn’t. It is a really useful basic technique to have and I was very lucky to have been taught by a Milanese lady, in Milan, in the 90’s. So to my mind, I have been taught in the best possible way and have been given an understanding of and feeling for the ingredients that I’m not entirely sure you can get from books – or blogs! Making risotto is not something that is the same every time you do it and you need to develop (literally) a feeling for the way the rice is behaving in the pan: how heavy it feels, how it smells, tastes and even sounds. Unless you have a gifted donna Milanese to hand, the only way is practice, practice, practice.
Rice production is big business in northern Italy, the cultivation dating back as far as I can tell from my research, to about 1475 when Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan claimed that one sack of rice, properly cultivated, could yield another twelve sacks. He certainly promoted the cultivation of rice (and indeed the commercialisation of silk and wool weaving, although in most other respects, he seems to have been a bad hat), going so far as to sponsor the construction of canals for irrigation. There is evidence that the Romans knew of it as a costly import from India, the grain being reserved to make a dish served to those suffering digestive ills or to the very rich. By all accounts it sounds rather like our present day British rice pudding.
The industrialisation of rice production was hugely aided by the construction between 1863 and 1866 of the Cavour Canal. This takes water from Italy’s longest river, the magnificent Po, starting at Chivasso, north east of Turin and ending at Galliate, north west of Milan and all within the region of Piedmont. These days, rice harvesting is mechanised using what look to my untutored eye like combine harvesters and doesn’t look in the slightest like the scenes from “Bitter Rice”. In the past – in fact up until the 60’s – rice was harvested by hand by teams of women who would invade the rural rice growing areas to spend their days barefoot in water, bent double harvesting the grains by hand. They would be accommodated in fairly spartan barn-type buildings, which these days are being gentrified into designer homes. I do know of one remaining “dormitory” which having been abandoned, is now occupied only by wildlife. Edoardo and I are going to re-visit it shortly, as like a fool, I didn’t take any photographs when I was last there. I will post when I’ve revisited – just hope it is still there and hasn’t been swathed in scaffolding for rebuilding – not yet anyway.
So, to the recipe itself and I’ll talk a little about ingredients first.
You start with selecting the correct rice. Most important and I have been party to some spirited debates in Italy about which rice is used for which risotto! There are three grades of rice: semifino, the smallest grain; fino and superfino, which has the largest grain. Within each of those, there three varieties:
Arborio which makes a dense, sticky risotto, perhaps a tad stodgy but also tends to be the cheapest of the three and honestly, it makes a perfectly acceptable risotto for most occasions
Vialone nano has a round, thick grain (a bit like our pudding rice) and can take quite a lot of rough and tumble before it breaks (broken rice in a risotto can be a sign of poor technique) and is very absorbent. I use it with big, hearty ingredients
Carnaroli is my personal favourite with long, slender grains that can absorb enough liquid to be creamy but never go stodgy. If you are making a risotto with premium ingredients such as asparagus, saffron or seafood, I’d always recommend this rice as it is a little more elegant than say, arborio.
My favoured brands are Acquarello and Curtiriso, the latter partly because not only is it is good rice but also because their production process is carbon neutral. I usually bring both brands back from Italy but Curtiriso can also be found in the UK on-line at www.nifeislife.com If you can’t get either of these, use what you can get but please make sure it is rice actually grown in Italy – don’t be deceived by an Italian looking label!
You will also need onion or shallot. I prefer shallot, especially if I am making a seafood, saffron or asparagus risotto, as it has a more subtle presence. If you only have onion, don’t fret, just ensure you chop it finely so it renders down quite easily. You don’t want to see pieces of shallot or onion in the finished dish. Sometimes I use a stick of celery as well, but optional.
Stock is a subject that seems to send otherwise sane, pleasant people to borders of insanity. Yes, life would be wonderful if one had a permanent supply of freshly made vegetable/chicken/veal stock on hand and sometimes I do have it. I do know of someone who declaims that “no Italian would make risotto from a cube so I don’t”. Huh, this from someone who has never been inside an Italian’s kitchen, speaks no Italian and – here’s the paradox – buys ready grated Parmesan. Don’t let absence of fresh stock deter you from making a risotto, but do choose your cube or powder with care. I can recommend Kollo, Marigold and an Italian brand called Star. The latter do a porcini flavoured cube which is excellent for an autumnal risotto al funghi and if you’re in Italy, they are in every supermarket and take up no room at all to bring home.
Cheese – ah, now this is probably where I become borderline insane. Ready grated Parmesan is not worth spending money on. There, I’ve said it, but honestly, I can find nothing good to say about it. Please, please if you only do one thing to upgrade your risotto, buy your Parmesan or Grana Padano in a biggish piece, preferably 18 – 30 months old. You don’t need fancy-smancy graters, either. I just use a normal three sided grater (of venerable age, I might add) and I use different sized grating faces, depending on whether the cheese is going in or on the risotto. I am writing extensively elsewhere about the virtues of Parmesan and its history so will leave it there for now.
Alcohol. It is nice to slosh some white wine into a risotto but in fact, I use Martini Extra Dry more often as we don’t drink that much white wine. And talking of which, what has Martini done with those fabulous fin de siècle bottle labels? This new minimalist label looks a bit “supermarket own brand” to me. Anyway, again, if you don’t have anything, don’t let this deter you from a risotto.
Butter. Possibly another of my rants coming on here, but I’ll try to contain myself. The final step in making a risotto is the mantecatura. This is resting the risotto and adding cold butter and grated cheese (not the latter for seafood or fish) and stirring in an enthusiastic manner until everything is creamy and emulsified. Please, please do not use salted butter, it will radically unbalance the seasoning and it you who controls the amount of salt in this dish. Salted butter has its place (hot, buttered toast!), just not in a risotto.
OK let’s start. Oh, sorry. One last thing. Risotto making will be easier if you have a pot or pan with a thick, heavy base and fairly shallow curved sides. Curved sides make it easier to scrape up and include every grain of rice and stuff doesn’t get stuck in corners, because there aren’t any! For stirring, I use a wooden spoon as it much gentler on the rice than metal and I can’t stand the sound of metal on enamel. Again though, don’t let absence of the perfect utensil put you off at first. If you become a devoted risotto maker, then you might want to save up and invest in perhaps a Le Creuset Buffet Casserole, which for me, is the perfect pan for this dish. Having said that my teacher in Milan had a battered old double handled shallow aluminium pan that belonged to her grandmother and which was the workhorse of her kitchen.
Serves: four as a first course, two as a main Cooking Time: About an hour including prep
1 small onion or shallot, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed with a scrap of salt under the blade of a knife
50g unsalted butter
400g Carnaroli rice
2.5 litres of hot stock
100ml or so of dry white wine or Martini Extra Dry
salt and freshly ground black pepper
75g cold unsalted butter, in small cubes (dice sized)
100g or so of finely grated Parmesan or Gran Padano
In a separate pan, keep the stock simmering and melt the butter over a low heat, adding the shallot and garlic
(In the spirit of sharing and pragmatism, I will say here that if I am making risotto with stock powder or cube, I make it with boiling water in a good old Pyrex jug and it stays plenty hot enough during the making; if it cools too much, I just heat it up a bit in the microwave)
Allow shallot to soften and become translucent but there must be no colour at all, which would adversely affect the flavour
Turn up the heat a bit to medium and add the rice and stir enthusiastically
Ensure the grains are well coated with the butter and are cooking well; you will notice that the dish is making slightly different noises once you have added the rice
Do not allow the rice to take on any colour. Confusingly this phase is called tostatura in Italian but toasted looking is not what we want here!
It is however, important that the dish is hot before we add the alcohol
Add the wine or Martini, keep stirring and allow the wine to almost evaporate
The mixture might look quite dry at this point
Add a ladle-full of stock and stir, scraping down the sides and across the base of the pan
We need the rice to cook evenly so it all needs to move around and evenly absorb the stock
Don’t let it catch on the bottom or sides of the pan - any taint of scorching will ruin the dish
At this point, I sometimes turn the heat down a tad; you want the risotto to bubble steadily but not at a rampant boil
Again, you will notice that the dish has changed its soundtrack
After the first ladle has mostly been absorbed, but the risotto is still runny and mobile, add another ladle-full
Keep going until you have achieved a moist and mobile consistency but not dry
If it is too liquid, looking more like soup than risotto, let the rice absorb the excess stock and also the stock to evaporate
It’s easier to slacken off a too-stiff risotto than serve a dismal, soupy dish with excess stock puddling on the plate
Take the pan off the heat and allow everything to rest for a moment.
This includes the cook who should have been working vigorously up to this point. A fine moment for a reviving slurp of something, I find. For me, I mean, not the risotto.
Now for the mantecatura:
Quickly beat in the cold butter, working as you would to stir polenta
Add the cheese and taste for seasoning - if the stock and cheese are salty you may not need salt at all
Test that you have the correct consistency by tipping the pan sideways; if you have got it right, it should ripple like a wave, hence “all’onda”
Serve in warm shallow bowls with extra cheese or put the whole lot in a warm dish on the middle of the table and let everyone help themselves
if you are making a risotto with additional ingredients, for example mushrooms, nettles (yes really - delicious), asparagus, I usually add the prepped ingredients after the rice and before the wine. There are other schools of thought and all are correct - this is where you do what works for you and I have written about specific risotto in other posts. This is the point where I will say that personally, I dislike cheese with a fish or seafood risotto and you will not find it in a proper risotto in Italy, but again, if it floats your boat….
If you would like very detailed guides to risotto making, I would unhesitatingly recommend the following:
Made in Italy, Food and Stories by Giorgio Locatelli, published by Fourth Estate - a wonderful book, from which I have learned so much
The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan, my copy is published by Papermac; I think this might be out of print in this format but second hand copies are available
My copies of both of these books are stained, splashed and have broken spines where they have been forced flat in my kitchen. That may offend some book lovers but to me, they are honourable battle scars and demonstrate the genius of the author in creating something so manifestly fit for purpose.
My final words are to implore you not to get stressed about risotto, which can, in the UK, have a reputation for being tricky achieve and do remember that in the Italian language, “riso” not only means rice but also laughter!
I love making soup and it is a default when I open the fridge and am faced with left over broccoli or pretty much anything. This soup is so delicious, however, that I encourage you to buy asparagus just for this. You can sometimes find sprue, which is thin, weedy stuff that would get sand kicked in its face on the beach, but is fab for soup making and is cheaper than the muscly stuff you need for cooking naked (the asparagus, not you….but I’m not here to judge). Markets are better hunting grounds for this than supermarkets and keep your eyes peeled, especially towards the end of the season. The quantity is fairly arbitrary, as you can just adjust everything else dependent on how much “grass” you have. I usually make soup in an ancient and much loved Le Creuset 20cm casserole, but as long as whatever you use has a thick base, use what you have. In terms of finishing the soup, my preference is Ivy House Farm (ivyhousefarm.com) Jersey single cream (available from farmdrop.com) and a miniscule amount of finely chopped chive, but this is good with yogurt or creme fraiche and parsley. I have tried this with mint, thinking it was a summer herb and might complement the asparagus well. Horrid: what was I thinking. Only thing I would caution against is swamping the wonderful asparagus flavour by using too much of any of your preferred finishes. Oh and I don’t think this works as a chilled soup either, but try it – you might think differently!
750 ml hot vegetable stock (Marigold or Kallo is fine)
chives or flat leaf parsley
cream, yogurt or creme fraiche
salt and freshly ground pepper
Add 1tbsp of oil and 1 tbsp butter to pan and add shallot and garlic, keep heat low to prevent colouring and soften, added a modicum of salt at this point
While this is happening, chop the stems into pieces about 1cm long, after snapping off and discarding any woody ends
Add to the pan and stir around cooking gently without colouring; add some freshly ground pepper at this point and then add the stock
Partially cover and simmer for about 25 minutes; the asparagus needs to be soft and the liquid to have reduced by about 20% in order to concentrate the flavour
Turn off the heat and allow to cool slightly
Blend to the point that pleases you: sometimes I like a very smooth soup, other times, I like to see a few green chunky bits bobbing around. If I want it to be very refined (not often!), I will sieve it but for me, adding refinement also risks removing some precious asparagus flavour
Serve into warmed dishes, stir in your choice of dairy and sprinkle lightly with finely chopped herbs
Serves four as a starter or two for a substantial lunch with Ballymaloe Bread. This also freezes well if frozen prior to adding the cream and I quite like having some squirrelled away for those cold summer days that we inevitably get in the UK.