If you’re superstitious and think that bad news (or perhaps sometimes good news?) comes in threes, then 27 November 2019 was a day to convince you of your belief. I was sat at my desk working on a publishing job for most of the day and first came the news – popping up on my computer – that Gary Rhodes had died suddenly. Gary Rhodes! This conjured up all kinds of memories for me – of watching his TV shows with my kids in the 90s; cooking his recipes; and my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration at one of his restaurants in London. I hadn’t heard much of him in years, but I hadn’t forgotten him. And when I had a cull of my cookbooks a couple of years ago, all Gary’s remained; I wasn’t throwing any out.
Sat at my desk the news of Jonathan Miller’s death followed. One of my great heroes, such an extraordinary man whom I’d followed from the days of the brilliant Beyond the Fringe on TV in my teens; to seeing his version of La Traviata more than once at the Royal Opera House. I’d barely time to mourn and remember when news of Clive James’ death came – on the same day! Clive James! Another hero. I never knew him yet felt such affection for him. I remembered reading his columns in the Observer, buying his books, watching his TV shows, and only last year seeing him interviewed by Mary Beard on TV and talking of his way of dying. Diagnosed with terminal leukaemia in 2010, he wasn’t going to go quietly. Thank goodness for us! His glorious wit and humour survived. As he laughed with Mary, we saw that he wasn’t going in anger, but in celebration and thankfulness for his life. James wasn’t just a ‘funny man’, he was another – like Miller – polymath: good at everything. He translated Dante’s The Divine Comedy (2013) and wrote some wonderful poetry, most recently a glorious epic poem, The River in the Sky, which we discussed and lauded at my book club.
Back to Gary, one of our TV chef giants who showed us how great British cooking can be … at a time when many were in doubt. Back in the late 90s we often had au pairs to look after our kids while I worked part-time. Usually French, they came with dire warnings and anxiety that they would have to live on fish and chips. It was still imagined the Brits lived on fish and chips. But not in my house. They found, to their relief, that I could cook. And – all modesty aside – I could cook well.
Given my love of Italian cooking and Gary championing British cooking, it’s a rather weird fact that it was Gary who introduced me to risottos. I cook risotto so often (it is one of my favourite things), and do it with my thoughts firmly turned towards Italy, yet it was Gary’s spinach and tomato risotto in his Open Rhodes Around Britain book (published 1996) that started me on my addiction to this delightful rice dish. A risotto of some kind is cooked most weeks in my house – you’ll find a good selection here on the blog (click here).
The book accompanied Gary’s TV series. It was a Christmas gift from my son Jonathan, then aged 13, who wrote inside: ‘Perhaps we can make that delicious orange souffle’. I can’t remember if we did, but my son is one of the best home cooks I know, so I think Gary’s influence (and it has to be said, Jamie Oliver’s too) played its part.
Spinach and tomato risotto is one of those comfort foods we all have. Making and eating it just fills me with love for my family, even when, as now, I’m usually cooking it just for myself! I have to say that my version has veered slightly away from Gary’s instructions, but essentially it is his; I think of it as his. And here it is. It’s what I cooked tonight as I thought of the ‘cheeky chappy’ and all he did for British cooking (even if he did teach me to cook Italian!).
Tomato & Spinach Risotto – For one
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- extra virgin olive oil
- ½ cup risotto rice
- a little white wine
- 1 cup (or more) hot stock (chicken or vegetable)
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 large tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped
- 2 big handfuls of baby spinach leaves
- about 10g butter
- a few mini mozzarellas (optional)
Gently fry the shallot in about 2 tablespoons olive oil. When soft, add the rice and stir well to coat each grain. Cook for just a minute of two then add a good splash of white wine. Stir over a medium heat until most of the wine has evaporated and been absorbed. Then start adding the hot stock ladleful by ladleful. (I used chicken but for a veggie meal, use vegetable stock.) Carry on until all the stock is used and the rice is tender but still retains a slight bite – al dente. You may need more than a cup of stock; you can make up the amount with hot water.
While the rice is cooking, put the chopped tomato in a frying pan with about a tablespoon of olive oil (if you want to be more sophisticated, skin the tomatoes, but I took the lazy approach!). Cook this gently, stirring occasionally, until it breaks down into a mush and is soft.
Now add the spinach. Stir carefully to mix together and cook for a couple of minutes until the spinach has wilted down into the tomato. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the spinach and tomato to the rice and mix well.
Now add the butter and a little grated Parmesan. Pop a lid on the pan and leave (off the heat) for a minute or two for the butter to melt. Now beat in well. This is the manecato step which brings an extra creaminess to the risotto.
Transfer to a serving dish. You’ll notice my risotto is quite wet as I like it that way – much as I often like an arroz rather than paella in Spain. But cook to a drier consistency if you prefer.
Now the addition of some mini mozzarella balls was because I had a tub open in my fridge that needed using up. They are certainly not essential and in fact, in all the years I’ve been making this risotto, it was the first time I’ve used them. But they were very nice! And I liked the added creaminess and different texture they offered. You could also use a standard size mozzarella and just slice or break into pieces. Grate over a little more Parmesan and serve.
Thank you, Gary, for showing me how wonderful risotto can be – and all you did for great British cooking.