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!
No, I wasn’t quite sure what it meant either. But I was invited to an event in the far north of London (OK, it was near Moorgate Station but I live in Wimbledon so anything north of the Marylebone Road induces a nosebleed) that invited me to discover what it was all about.
It was worth the trek as happily, it was a convention of some of my favourite suppliers who were launching a mission to “challenge the UK public to shake up part of their weekly shop – switching from supermarkets to specialists” (taken from their marketing material) for the month of September.
Now, I am already a huge devotee of farmdrop.com who supply the most wonderful fruit & veg, fish, meat, bread & cakes and fresh pasta from small local suppliers, so it was a delight to meet the lovely Lucy and gifted Beth (a semi finalist in Masterchef who now masters the Farmdrop social media content and cooks, too). More about them later, but I was also introduced to pongcheese.co.uk I am afraid to say that Edoardo and I were a little less than restrained with the sampling of their fabulous cheese; we will be ordering from them so I’ll write about that later this month.
Edoardo is already a devotee of HotelChocolat.com so was happy to sample their luxurious chocolate and by luxurious, I don’t necessarily mean expensive – it is the flavours and inspired combinations that denote luxury here. Chocolate is not my weakness so I went back to the cheese zone, via FishforThought.co.uk where I sampled fresh crab – one of my favourites, and nakedwines.com Regrettably I might have sampled there just a tad over-enthusiastically so I needed more cheese to mop it up…..that’s my excuse anyway.
I am also not going to sit here and criticise all supermarkets, but increasingly they are NOT a good place to buy your fresh food. In my view, they place far too much emphasis on visual appeal and how easy it is to pack food. I guess for them, life is easier if all tomatoes or apples or whatever are of a uniform size, making packaging and general logistics more predictable and thus cost-controllable. As shoppers though, we perhaps have to take some of the blame for this obsession with the perfect tomato; a tomato’s perfection should be assessed by its flavour, not the fact that it looks shiny and perfect. The British by and large don’t shop with their noses – how may times have you observed someone in a supermarket sniff a melon to see if it’s ripe? Unless you’ve seen me, I’d say quite rarely. And how can we sniff a tomato if the poor wretched things are imprisoned in a plastic box and wrapped in cellophane? Never mind, they look good so that’s all right then!
I do have some sympathy with supermarkets when the media coverage tends to focus solely on their price competitiveness, so they find themselves in a race to the bottom. And back also to my lament that wanting to have good food, fairly priced is somehow seen as elitist or the province of the chatterati in the UK. No, it isn’t, the less you have to spend on food, the less you can afford to be taken in by supermarkets; the less you have to spend on food, the more you need to be able to cook a few basics like soup, casseroles, anything eggy and bread. And I don’t buy the time objection either, but you do need to be organised and prepared to learn. Rant over…..
Anyway, to go back to the challenge issued by these great producers, Edoardo and I decided to see if we could eat for a whole day using fresh ingredients only from these guys. I planned the menus for Sunday which also prompted me to try an Italian dish I ate once years ago and have wanted to attempt myself ever since. Here’s what we ate last Sunday:
Jersey milk yogurt & blueberries
Cafone sourdough toast with unsalted butter
Chargrilled courgettes and aubergine with crumbled feta cheese
Beetroot tortelloni with sage butter and poppy seeds
Loin of pork in milk (recipe later – don’t be deterred by the title, it’s scrumptious)
Apple tart with creme fraiche (Edoardo had room for this – I didn’t!)
All these came from farmdrop.com and my bill was £37.00 and did several meals: the chargrilled veg, left over pork and potatoes were all upcycled into delicious meals today and the bread will last for several days. The sourdough comes in a huge 800g loaf that goes in the freezer on day three and is perfect for a week or so. The focaccia is so good that I’m afraid that despite the fact it arrives in a monster 400g slab, it doesn’t last more than two days so never sees the freezer!
I have virtually shopped this same list with from a supermarket’s on line shop (no, not saying which one!) and the bill came to £41.77; several ingredients were not available as organic and I couldn’t get Jersey milk yogurt. I also know that the supply chain is far shorter with Farmdrop and the producer gets a fairer cut of the money, which matters hugely to me. I shop mainly organic because I have concerns about animal welfare and again, I know with Farmdrop, I can be easier in my mind about that.
We both also said that the quality of the food was considerably better, so we are going to continue using Farmdrop.com and before anyone asks, no, I receive no remuneration or other consideration from them – I just want good food, honestly priced and sourced and they hit the spot.
So, on to the recipe with this blog. Loin of pork in milk sounds hideous but please trust me when I say it is absolutely scrumptious. If you like a deeply savoury, umami flavour then this is the dish for you. The milk renders down into a dark, double cream that is glossy and chestnut coloured; the meat becomes tender and can be cut with a spoon. It is simple but does need an eye kept on it, so best to cook it when you can be near the kitchen every 20 – 30 minutes. It is also very rich, so I recommend keeping the accompaniments very simple; plain rice or potato and a leafy green vegetable go well. Please, buy the best quality pork you can find; something sitting on a blue polystyrene tray in a chiller cabinet won’t cut it. It is easier to carve if you buy a boned, rolled loin but I do prefer the extra flavour that is there when the bone is present. It’s not that much harder to carve if you loosen the meat away from the bone first and of course, use a surgically sharp knife! This recipe also calls for the joint to be skinless and this is also easy to do with the properly sharp knife. Just cut the string, slice off the rind as close to the skin as possible and roll and tie it up again. I keep the rind in the freezer to add to beef casseroles later in the winter for extra depth of flavour.
550ml whole organic milk (please don’t try this with semi- or skimmed milk, it won’t work)
sprig of thyme or rosemary
salt and freshly milled black pepper
Use a thick based casserole or stout pan, just large enough to hold the meat
Heat the butter and oil until the foaming point is subsiding and then add the meat, initially fat side down
Brown all sides of the meat and turn down the heat if the butter becomes dark brown or if it smells too nutty
Season and gently add the milk - I usually take the pan off the heat momentarily to do this and avoid sudden eruptions - followed by the bay leaf and your choice of herb
Allow the milk to slowly come to the boil and then turn the heat own to a gentle simmer
Put on the lid, slightly askew and simmer for about 2 hours
Every 30 minutes or so, turn the meat and in the meantime, keep an eye or ear out for overboiling
You might need to add a little more milk
After about the first hour, the milk will start to change colour and also create little clusters that will gradually also go a golden brown - don’t worry, it’s not curdling
Once you can easily pierce the meat with a fork, remove it to a carving board or dish and cover with foil to keep warm
While this is happening, draw off the surface fat from the milk mixture but do be careful not to rob yourself of any delicious nutty clusters
Stir quite vigorously and if you prefer to thin it a little, add a couple of tablespoons of warm water; ensure you loosen all the scrummy bits adhering to the base of the pan
Discard the bay leaf and herbs
Cut the string on the meat and slice into medium thick slices, arrange on a platter and pour over the sauce
As I’ve said, you might want to keep accompaniments simple and any first course could be vegetable based, for example Piedmont peppers or chargrilled courgettes with basil. Having said that, last Sunday we preceded it with a small portion of pasta, so anything non meat based can work.
When I married in 1978 (stupidly young and it didn’t last….), I knew kitchens existed but wasn’t entirely sure what went on in them. I knew food emerged but had no idea how it happened. Didn’t do “Domestic Science” at school as I was in the stream that did Latin and French, both of which I have to say, have been remarkably useful. It now enrages me to think that learning to cook was (and might still be in some schools) regarded as less demanding than learning languages. Better I don’t get started on that one; it is probably a whole other post.
Shortly after becoming engaged my wise mother, fearing that my husband would have to live on toast, bought me the Delia Smith Complete Cookery Course, which in those days came in three paperback volumes. In truth, I wasn’t terribly impressed with that as an engagement present (what an ungrateful creature I was) but when I finally opened the first volume, something in me blossomed and food became an enduring passion. I am also terribly attached to some of the books and equipment that I bought or was given in those early days. I still have (see picture) the very first wooden spoon I was given and the casserole in the same picture is now over 35 years old and.
In some quarters, it is now fashionable to decry Delia and whilst I no longer cook from her books, she did teach me the basics, allowed me to start cooking edible meals (and then good meals) and for me, best of all, that edition included a Bibliography! One of my other passions is books and reading (to the point that when I met Edoardo, we realised that consolidating our homes would mean accommodating over 5,000 books), so pointing me to other writers and cooks was just bliss.
Now, for me, this is where a deep, enduring love of food, cooking and its social and political history started. The first person I investigated from Delia’s bibliography was Elizabeth David and for me, this was when I really began to understand flavours, textures and the simple joy of good food eaten seasonally with minimal interference. I think I was a little in awe of her in the way I never was with Delia, but I as grew older and matured myself, Mrs David’s (never, just never Elizabeth) approach to much in life resonated with me.
The second aspect of Mrs David’s writing that spoke to me was the sheer poetry of it. Should you doubt this, may I refer you to the first two paragraphs of her chapter on Fish in “Italian Food”. The description of the Rialto fish market takes me straight back there every time I read it. She makes me not just see it but smell and hear it, too.
It has probably also taken me some years to understand how brave Mrs David was to publish her first book in 1950 post war Britain, when food was still rationed and olive oil was something requested in the chemist’s to sort out wax in one’s ears. Can you imagine the reaction of people being asked to cook with something they regarded as medicinal? I also have huge sympathy for the early brave devotees of Mrs David – I cannot begin to think what it must be like to cook without olive oil, lemons, garlic, spices and fresh herbs; for those intrepid cooks, the frustration must have been enormous.
That first book, “A Book of Mediterranean Food” is still amongst my most referred to and certainly takes the prize for the most bespattered pages (none of my foods books is pristine – if I come across one it usually means it was rubbish and, no, am NOT naming names!). It is a continual source of inspiration, not dogmatically but as a jumping off point for interpreting her recipes.
There are points upon which I depart from her advice; for example, adding oil to water for cooking pasta is nonsense. It will just float there on top while the water boils away, doing its job and ignoring the oil. You are therefore wasting precious oil and thus money. I know there are people who swear by this, but I have never come across an Italian who does it and when I enquired, was met with a sigh of resignation indicating that the craziness of the British in the kitchen should never be underestimated. She also says pasta can take up to 20 minutes to cook. Nope, not unless you like wallpaper paste.
When she speaks of meat and fish, however, she remains for me definitive and whilst I have adjusted her recipes to suit my taste, her basic advice and method remain unaltered. As we approach the cooler months of the year, I’d like to share with you my version of her Daube de boeuf provencale. It is easy, if not cheap, but does serve 6, or fewer with left overs and smells utterly divine while cooking. It is a recipe that denotes for me the arrival of autumn, as I always seem to make it in September after the lighter foods of summer.
1 kg top rump of beef, cut into squares about 7/8cm and 8mm thick (I always buy the beef in the piece and cut it myself to get the right sized pieces)
175g unsmoked streaky bacon or pancetta, sliced into strips
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds
2 medium onions sliced into half moon slices
2 tomatoes, skinned and sliced (you can use tinned and then use the rest to make soup as a first course)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and squashed under the blade of your knife
bouquet garni (I use a piece of celery with a bay leaf, a generous amount of thyme and parsley and if possible, a large slice of orange peel, sans pith, tied up with kitchen string and anchored to the handle of the casserole)
a (very) generous glass of red wine, French if possible, but use what you have
salt and freshly milled ground pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 140 degrees C/130 fan
In the bottom of a thick based, heat retaining pot (I use an ancient and much loved le Creuset casserole) pour in the olive oil, the bacon or pancetta, then the vegetables and then layer the meat slices, overlapping them slightly. Bury the garlic and bouquet garni in the centre.
Season and with an uncovered pan, start cooking over a moderate flame for about ten minutes
In a separate pan, heat the wine until at a lively boil and set it alight
Once the flames have died down, pour the bubbling wine over the meat mixture
Cover VERY tightly (I add a layer of tightly clamped tin foil before the casserole lid) and out in the oven for about 2.5 hours
I like to add pitted, black olives about half an hour before the end of the cooking time
It might not seem that you start with much liquid here, which is true, but long, slow cooking will produce a fragrant, delicious dish for so very little effort.
Although I am usually all for saving on the washing up, I do like to serve this in the traditional way on a wide shallow platter, having extracted the bouquet garni, poured the sauce around the meat and garnished with persillade of finely chopped garlic and parsley, or a few capers and a couple of chopped anchovies
This goes well with wild red rice or plain boiled potatoes
As there is no pre-browning of the meat, this is wonderful for a slow cooker, but do try to find time to flame the wine. I have to confess that I have on occasions made do with just heating the wine, as I am not always at my brightest before my first cup of coffee in the early morning. Flames in my kitchen prior to coffee is a tad alarming for me. Anyway, the upshot is that it is subtly different without the flaming trick, but not worse. Just different.
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!
When our British weather sends us something miserable, is there anything more comforting than a bowl of homemade soup? Is there anything else that tells us that life isn’t that bad and it will get better? (OK, so wine or chocolate work here too) After all, think of the theme of so many of the advertisements for bought soups; they usually focus on the homely theme or on the fresh and natural aspect. So far, so good – until you read the ingredients or check the cost. Not so good.
I read recently that tinned soups are one of the biggest offenders for salt and as for ingredients, I am speechless (not a frequent occurrence….). What on earth are Wheat Flour, Citric Acid, Modified Cornflour (modified how?), Polyphosphate and Sodium Phosphate doing in soup? Fresh soups are by far and away less offensive on the ingredient front but that is unfortunately reflected in the price.
It is possible to easily avoid these dilemmas by making your own. It is so easy to make soup, it almost criminally simple and once you have the Foundation Recipe under your belt, you can use whatever ingredients are seasonal, well priced, or just what you fancy!
Before I dive into the Foundation Recipe, I want to just make a few comments on the ingredients I have listed:
I soften my onion, carrot and celery mixture in olive oil, unsalted butter or a mixture of both. It depends on the flavour I want to achieve; you’re free to use what you like, including sunflower oil. Personally I avoid rapeseed oil as I can always detect it in a soup (or indeed in most dishes) and I dislike it.
Note too that the ingredients I just listed are not mandatory. I pretty much always use an onion (or shallot if I want a more subtle flavour) and frankly, carrot and celery isn’t always needed. I find it helpful to just take a moment before I decide, to imagine the end flavours I want to achieve; if it doesn’t include carrot or celery, I don’t use them.
Stock is a fraught subject that can bring normally calm, restrained cooks to scarlet-faced fury. Yes, it is lovely if you can always have homemade chicken stock to hand and if you have had a roast chicken and you have the time, yes, make some. But, please, don’t stress about it, or even shy away from making soup simply because your freezer isn’t stocked with homemade stock! It is perfectly acceptable to use bought stock (Waitrose and Truefoods both produce excellent stock without salt) and I always have Marigold Organic Reduced Salt Bouillon Powder and Kallo Organic Very Low Salt Vegetable Stock Cubes in the cupboard. That Swiss brand or the three letter brand – don’t even go there. Have you read the ingredients?
Garlic – love it, so it finds its way into most of my soup. If you don’t like it, don’t use it but might I plead with you to give it a gentle try in at least tomato soup?
OK, sermon over, let’s get started. I have tried to give very clear instructions here and if I have over done it and trespassed into the “teaching my grandmother to suck eggs” territory, sorry, but some of you might never have done this before and I am a tad evangelical about the numerous benefits of homemade soup!
In terms of cost, this comes at about £1.29 and can serve four as a first course or two for lunch as a single course. This compares well, I believe, with about £1.89 for 600m of fresh tomato soup in the supermarket. Yes, tinned tomato soup is cheaper, at about 99p for a well-known brand. But does it really taste of tomato?
Now, moving on to other flavours. You can make soup from pretty much any vegetable, pulse or bean. Let’s say you want lentil soup: soften the soffrito as above then instead of tomatoes, add a couple of handfuls of red lentils and perhaps cumin and a scrap of dried chilli flakes. You might need more of the stock at this stage and also, lentils are devils for catching on the bottom, so keep the flame low and stir frequently, while the soup simmers lazily, with the occasional plop. You might want spinach and broccoli soup, so add washed broccoli florets, let them cook for about 10 minutes and then add washed, torn spinach, cooking for another ten minutes or so. This is splendid with a scrape of nutmeg and a generous amount of cream and in my mind, does need blending before adding the cream.
You can experiment, vary and play with this foundation recipe to your heart’s content. The only thing I would say is try to keep it seasonal and use left over vegetables, too. They just need less simmering. I did try to make something once with left over roast potatoes. Don’t. Just don’t. Horrid. Oh and taste, taste, taste as you go, and if you do succeed with roast potatoes, let me know!
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped into 0.5mm dice
1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped into 0.5mm dice
1 stick celery, chopped into 0.5mm dice and if it’s a bit stringy, swipe a potato peeler down it to whisk away the strings
This combination is called a soffrito in Italian cookery. I know it exists in French cookery too, but a) I can’t remember the French word for it and b) my heart is in Northern Italy and particularly in her kitchens!
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 (or more) cloves of garlic, finely chopped, or crushed under the blade of a knife (see over in My Kitchen under Techniques for how to do this)
I tin Italian tomatoes, chopped or whole - no matter - but they MUST be Italian
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tbsp Italian tomato puree
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock - see above
salt and freshly ground pepper
Take a pan or flameproof casserole with a thick, heavy base. I use an ancient and much loved 20cm Le Creuset which has been with me for more than 30 years
Put it on a low heat, add the oil and butter then the soffrito, stir and allow to soften until everything becomes soft and fragrant
Under no circumstances allow this to burn, so you might need to be a bit hawk-like at first, until you understand how your pan and flame perform together
You can add a modicum of salt at this point, but go easy
Add the garlic and soften that too, but again no burning, as burnt garlic is just horrid
I like to add the thyme at this point and to be honest, don’t always bother to strip the leaves off the stems; they will fall off in the process of cooking and just remember to fish out the stems before you blend
Add the tin of tomatoes all in one go; if they are whole, mash them up a bit with a wooden spoon
Add the tomato puree and then the stock, using at this stage probably about 750 ml, and stir everything round
Add a few grinds of pepper, partly cover the pan having brought the contents to a gentle simmer
Leave it for about 20 - 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure nothing catches on the bottom
The soup should reduce a little during this process, which helps to concentrate the flavour
Turn off the heat and let the soup cool a little
This is the point at which I like to blend a soup, usually using a trusty Kenwood Stick Blender which is just so easy to wash up (just remember to fish out the thyme stems!)
You can of course, use a conventional blender or food processor, and indeed you can leave it chunky and rustic
After blending, it may appear quite thick so just thin it out with the remaining stock
To finish, swirl in some cream, yogurt or creme fraiche and top with a sprinkle of finely chopped chives or parsley