Risotto is soul food: the kind of food you cook when you want to nurture yourself or those you care about; food that is warm and comforting; food to help you slow down as you stir it slowly. There are winter risottos but summer ones too: still warm and comforting but lighter, fresher flavours. This Fresh Tomato and Herb Risotto is just perfect for a summer’s evening.
Rice has been around since at least 1000BC and eventually made its way to Italy via the Arabs in the 14th century when it was brought to Sicily. It didn’t make it to northern Italy for another century – but once there was famously made into one of the most famous risottos – Risotto Milanese.
It was apparently first used for medicinal purposes in the north of Italy – perhaps because of its high B-vitamin content? The Chinese believe it strengthens the spleen and a weak stomach. However, I imagine for all these ‘good’ reasons for eating rice, you’d have to use the brown whole-food variety. But when it comes to risotto, then brown rice isn’t the thing. A brown rice risotto just isn’t a true risotto. It might be a nice dish, but it won’t be that wonderful, creamy concoction that you’ll find in Italy.
I cook risottos a lot. They’re perfect for the single gourmet because it’s easy to cook just the right amount. I prefer very simple risottos with few ingredients – it isn’t a Spanish paella into which a large number of ingredients are often added and that is anyway also a drier rice dish. One of my favourite books is Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook and you couldn’t look anywhere better for the most authentic way to make a risotto and she gives a recipe for that simplest and most delicious of risottos, as mentioned above, Risotto Milanese which is cooked with just chicken stock, a little onion sauted in butter and oil and flavoured with just some saffron and Parmesan cheese. Other delicious and simple risottos are Mushroom, or Pea and Fresh Mint.
For Fresh Tomato and Herb Risotto:
Skin four medium-sized tomatoes (choose nicely ripe and tasty ones for full flavour). Chop roughly, cutting away the woody stem. In a small frying pan gently fry the tomato in a little olive oil and some salt and pepper. You just want to soften it a little; mash it down a bit with the back of a spoon. Don’t cook for too long as you want to retain the fresh flavour – once it’s soft, stir in a squeeze of tomato puree then add a large handful of chopped fresh herbs: I used basil, thyme, parsley and rocket from my garden – but use whatever you have to hand and like. Stir well and then turn off the heat and leave while you cook the rice.
Take some stock cubes from the freezer (see Real Stock Cubes). You want about 2 to 3 times as much stock as rice – in this case, half a cup of rice. Just judge roughly how many cubes you’ll need and heat in a small pan as you’ll want to add it hot; you can always add a bit of hot water later if you don’t have quite enough. Take a big pan – like my favourite Jamie Oliver stir-fry pan for which I also have a fitting lid (from another pan of his!). Gently fry a finely chopped small onion in some butter and olive oil. Don’t let it brown but as soon as it begins to soften, add half a cup of rice and stir to coat each grain: this gentle frying gives the rice its flavour, or insaporito. Arborio rice is often used but recently I’ve been using Vialone Nano rice (also from Carluccio’s) which I like a lot. It’s very important to have proper short-grain risotto rice otherwise you won’t get the right kind of creamy consistency at the end.
Now start adding the hot stock. Add just a little at a time, stirring round and round until its absorbed by the rice, then add more. This is the ‘soul’ part: it’s about taking things slowly, continuing to stir to release the starch and make it creamy. (At this point I might well like a glass of wine to hand – and if it’s white, add a splash to the risotto – and perhaps a nice mellow CD on in the background like a new favourite of mine, Hugh Laurie’s blues album, Let Them Talk.) When all the stock is used up, check to see if the rice is cooked. It should be al dente – i.e. still have a bite. When I first tasted risotto in Italy I thought it wasn’t cooked, but they always serve it slightly underdone. If it’s not quite done, add some hot water. Remember you’re aiming for something creamy and loose in texture; not dry. Once it’s done, check the seasoning (it will have a little salt from your stock) – add more salt and freshly milled pepper to taste. Then gently stir in the tomato mixture. Once everything is combined, turn off the heat and put the lid on the pan and leave for just a couple of minutes. Then serve – gently put spoonfuls onto a plate and then dribble over a little olive oil and grate over some fresh Parmesan. A rocket or green salad on the side is good too. Enjoy!