It’s been a long time since I’ve had to think about cooking regular family meals but with Jonathan and Lyndsey staying with me at the moment, I’ve had to take my turn and come up with something reasonably easy and inexpensive for midweek supper. And something that also contains or is served with meat. While Lyndsey and I would happily eat a vegetable risotto on its own as a main meal, Jonathan likes meat too. I’ve been out in the evening a lot over the last week or two, and they sometimes cook for me, but when it’s my turn it reminds me of how it used to be when my son and daughter were school kids and I had to come up with a plan of what to cook each evening. I always cooked. I didn’t resort to ready-made meals. But the somewhat relentless need to come up with a plan every night was more difficult for me than the actual cooking. Once I’d decided what we were having there was no problem; I’ve always liked to cook, but that constant question of ‘what shall we eat tonight?’ could, on a busy day, be the source of some frustration. I know for a time I slipped into cooking certain meals on certain evenings – always Bolognese on Fridays, for instance – and Nicola and Jonathan would tease me that they could tell the day of the week simply by what food I put before them! If this sounds a little complaining, I don’t mean it that way. I loved the family meals and when they brought friends home and a few of us would sit round the dining table it was great. But coming up with something to cook every night was a bit of a challenge!
Most of the time, living alone, I only have myself to think of. I might fancy fish and pick up a piece of salmon from Sandys while I’m out and about in Twickenham high street. I’ll look in my fridge and see lots of tomatoes and make a fresh tomato sauce to go with pasta; or think that half-pack of mushrooms would make a nice risotto. Cooking for others is usually a more special affair for me nowadays and I’ll enjoy the process of thinking about what to cook; I’ll spend time looking through cookbooks and not worry too much about cost. I’m usually ready to spend quite a lot of time in the kitchen preparing it, often trying out new recipes for the blog. Fortunately, I find cooking very restful. Today, after what’s been quite a busy working day (albeit from home), it was actually a pleasure to stand by my cooker and slowly stir a risotto for our supper. The courgette idea came from the simple fact of having some in the fridge! A leftover from our Able & Cole organic vegetable box delivery. Lemon and mint go well with courgettes and I got the idea of sprinkling over some toasted pine nuts at the end from a Angela Hartnett recipe. The meat could be at the side, I decided, and I found some nice lamb steaks on offer in Waitrose so it turned out to be quite a reasonably priced midweek supper too!
Should I dice or grate the courgettes? The lovely Mimi grated them in a risotto on her blog last week (www.chefmimiblog.com); Angela Hartnett grates them too but Antonio Carluccio dices his. I went with grating.
The first thing I did was get out some chicken stock from the freezer, transfer it into a saucepan and leave it on a low heat to thaw and heat up. Luckily, there’s a good supply of Jonathan’s home-made stock in containers. Then I grated the courgettes (I had 2 large ones) and left them draining in a sieve with a little salt.
Next I finely sliced 2 shallots and put them with a crushed clove of garlic into a large pan with some olive oil and large knob of butter. I gently fried for a little to soften the shallots a bit then tossed in a large mug of risotto rice.
I stirred the rice round to coat in the oil and slightly toast the rice then added a good glug of white wine. I let this bubble away and then started adding the hot stock ladleful by ladleful, stirring all the time. This is the good bit. This is the time of slowing down and relaxing. The more slowly and gently you take this step, the more creamy and wonderful your risotto will be. Risotto needs love; it’s not a fast food! Although it really doesn’t take that long to make. When the rice is almost cooked add the grated courgettes and stir in well.
Now grate in the zest of half a lemon and stir. Allow to finish cooking – until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice cooked, but retaining a slight bite. Check seasoning. Turn off the heat. Add another good knob of butter, about 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint and grate over a nice helping of Parmesan.
Stir well and put the lid on the saucepan and leave to rest for a couple of minutes before serving. To serve, put spoonfuls of the risotto on to a warm plate, drizzle over a little olive oil, grate over some more Parmesan and then scatter some toasted pine nuts on top. I served it with some griddled lamb steaks but would have been very happy to eat the risotto on its own.
It’s always great to have an appreciative audience. And there was lots of happy appreciation from my two guests. Jonathan said it was ‘outstanding’ and he was definitely going to cook it himself. I think grating the courgettes was definitely better than dicing them would have been, but the really special ‘effect’ was the addition of the lemon and mint. Both flavours shone through beautifully and gave a wonderful freshness to the dish. Everything married well and it was one of those dishes I was really pleased with myself, which made it all the more delightful to have cooked.