‘Risotto is such a simple and satisfactory dish’, wrote Elizabeth David in her Italian Food, first published in 1954. I imagine it was quite a rare dish to find in UK in those days whereas now it pops up on nearly every menu you’re likely to come across that crosses the Italian-fusion divide. Often it will be served as a side dish, yet really that’s not what it’s supposed to be. In Italy, for a formal meal, it will be served after the Antipasti instead of a pasta dish and before the Secondi – the main course. In Italy a saffron-infused Risotto Milanese will accompany an Osso Bucco, but other than that, risotto is best eaten alone.
I like to keep to the ‘simple’ of Elizabeth David and by that I mean I rarely add many ingredients. This isn’t, to my mind, a ‘use up anything lurking in the fridge’ recipe. To the main base of rice (a good, proper risotto rice like arborio or the vialone nano rice I used tonight, bought in Carluccio’s) and stock I might only add some mushrooms, softened first in some butter and olive oil, with maybe a sprinkling of parsley; or some fresh baby peas and chopped mint from the garden. Tonight I added leeks and bacon. The British leek season launched on 1 November so it seemed very timely to make the most of this vegetable when at its best: firm, white-tipped leeks, sweet and delicious with their mild onion flavour. And, of course, onions go so well with pork but my pork choice was bacon – though if you feel like embracing the Italian in the risotto then you could plump for pancetta instead (very similar but cured differently for a slightly different flavour).
I like that Elizabeth David calls risottos ‘simple’. I’m surprised when people assume that because I live on my own it’s not something I would cook. Actually, I cook them a lot! I love risotto. And it lends itself so well to a single portion while I’d hesitate to try to cook a good one for a large number of guests. It is also, as she says, ‘satisfactory’. I don’t think she means ‘satisfactory’ as in ‘OK’ or ‘acceptable’, but ‘satisfactory’ as in ‘satisfying’. Because eating a good risotto is a sublime and satisfying experience.
Another thing that surprises me is that people ever want to take shortcuts when cooking a risotto. I’ve found recipes suggesting you can ‘make it easier’ by putting all the stock in in one go and cooking the dish in the oven; I’ve heard of people using (now fashionable again) slow cookers or even pressure cookers. None of these things will do as far as I’m concerned. A proper risotto must be made with love and care. The whole essence of achieving that creamy consistency is to add hot stock a little at a time and stir … and stir … breaking down the starch and making it come into a sauce-like consistency (rather than a drier paella or pilaf). You really have to make a risotto with love – or why bother? It’s that slowing down; the care and attention; the adding of the stock a little at a time. And in the slowing down and taking your time, hopefully you will slow down and relax too, so that when your risotto is ready – and it must be served straight away, no ‘keeping it warm’ – you are mellowed into the perfect mood to eat it slowly and enjoy its properly.
To serve 1: roughly chop 4 rashes of streaky bacon and put in a pan with about 25g butter and a tablespoon olive oil. Cook until the bacon is nicely – but not too well – browned then remove to a plate.
Now add the white end of 1 leek (about 12cm), thinly sliced, to the pan and cook gently till lightly browned and softened. Add 1/2 cup of risotto rice and stir well so every grain of rice is nicely coated with the butter and oil. Then add a good glug of dry vermouth or white wine and wait till it’s all absorbed into the rice before starting to add the hot stock. I’d made a lovely rich chicken stock on Sunday after roasting a chicken which added a gorgeous deep flavour to the risotto. You’ll need in all about 2 to 3 times the amount of rice you used – i.e. about 1 to 1 1/2 cups. Add the stock in small amounts, stirring well and continuing to stir quite frequently after each addition and waiting until most of the stock is taken up by the rice before adding more.
When the rice is almost cooked – al dente: separate grains with a slight bite but definitely not hard! – check the seasoning. You don’t want to season too early as your stock will be salted, and you’re also going to be adding the bacon at the end. When the rice is done – and you may need to keep checking the grains near the end to get it just right – the stock absorbed but leaving a nice creamy and loose consistency, remove from the heat. Return the bacon to the pan with a little freshly chopped parsley, a knob of butter and a little grated Parmesan.
Now gently fold it all together then serve. I like to dribble over a little extra olive oil and grate on some more Parmesan.
It tasted so good: that warming, soothing creamy consitency; the sweetness of the leeks matching perfectly with the slight saltiness of the bacon. And I enjoyed it so much, I ate it all up in one go!