What is your first cooking memory? For me it depends what you classify as cooking. I think my first ever kitchen memory is from when I was about five years old. I remember making cakes with my childminder, Margaret. After she had put the cakes into the oven she always let me scrape the bowl. This was of course long before the days of salmonella scares. I loved the taste of uncooked cake mixture. So buttery and creamy, with a subtle crunch from the sugar granules. I still get tempted to lick that spoon now!
However, my first experience of cooking a real meal came embarrassingly late in life. I am ashamed to say I was well into my twenties. After putting all her belongings in to storage my friend Shamli decided to squat at my flat for two weeks before going travelling. One evening we decided to be very grown up and cook a meal…wait for it…from a recipe book! I had a copy of Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries, given to me as a Christmas present, which was gathering dust on my bookshelf. We decided to christen it by making his lemon and asparagus risotto. It was beautiful. Herb infused velvety stock delicately coating each grain of perfectly cooked Arborio rice. It is still, to this day, the dish I make the most. Only now, instead of cooking it as a main, I often serve it as an accompaniment to a fillet of pan-fried or grilled salmon.
The Nigel Slater recipe I started with has evolved considerably over the years so it now perfectly suits my palate. I no longer use any butter or parmesan cheese. The former because my doctor keeps trying to scare me with stories about the South Asian predisposition to high cholesterol and the latter because N has weird aversion to parmesan! So much so that if the person on the table next to us as a restaurant asks for parmesan I have to spend the rest of my dinner watching him hold his nose and roll his eyes.
My favourite risotto variation is a simple vegetarian one of mushrooms accompanied by leeks or asparagus. However I regularly add in whatever I have to hand – perhaps a bit of leftover roast chicken, or if I haven’t had a chance to go shopping I conjure up a pea and prawn version with ingredients straight from my freezer.
Before I get stuck in to the recipe, a couple of pointers on how to make a really good risotto. The best tip I have ever learnt is to always prepare all the stock, but never expect to use it all. How much you use on any given day just depends. It depends on the particular grains of rice that have found their way into your dish, the exact quantity of vegetables and how slowly and lovingly you have cooked and stirred it. The most important thing is to taste your rice. Each grain should be soft on the outside and slightly firm on the inside, or what the Italians call al dente. By this I mean just resisting your teeth rather than sending you for an emergency visit to your dentist! And my final point is that risotto has to be made when you have a bit of time on your hands, I would advise allowing a generous hour from start to finish. You must add the stock slowly and cook it on a low to medium heat. Keep tasting it as you go and you’ll soon know when it’s ready.
Mushroom and Leek Risotto
(serves 2 | total prep and cooking time approximately 1 hour)
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 small onion – diced
2 cloves of garlic – finely chopped
120-150g risotto rice
100ml white wine (optional)
2 stock cubes (chicken or veg) dissolved in a total of 1 litre of boiling water
1 large leek – sliced
Approximately 160g mushrooms – sliced
Few handfuls of frozen peas (optional)
Sprinkling of Italian herbs (fresh or dried)
Teaspoon of truffle oil (optional)
Black pepper and parmesan cheese (optional) to serve
· Heat the oil in a saucepan on a medium heat
· Cook the onions until they soften and turn golden. Do not let them brown
· Add the garlic and cook for a few minutes
· Add the dry risotto rice and stir for a minute until all the rice grains are coated in the onion, garlic and oil
· Add the wine and increase the heat slightly until the liquid bubbles. Cook it like this for a few minutes so the alcohol can evaporate from the wine. If you are not using wine just complete this step with 100ml of stock.
· Add a few ladles of stock and the sliced mushrooms and leeks. If you are using peas you should add these much later (after about half the stock has been used). This stops them from becoming mushy
· Stir in the herbs
· Reduce the heat to medium. As the liquid starts to evaporate keep adding the stock a few ladles at a time. NOTE: if you add the stock too quickly the rice will absorb too much liquid and become very stodgy
· When ¾ of the stock has been added taste the rice to see if it’s cooked. If not add a bit more stock accordingly
· Just before the end stir through the truffle oil
· Top with cracked black pepper and parmesan should you wish