Everyone tells you (well, the ‘experts’, anyway) that risotto is one of the easiest dishes in the world to make — once you know how. And, of course, the kicker lies in those last four words. Unfortunately risotto is one of those dishes that refuses to be pinned down by a recipe. As with all things in life, experience is the secret ingredient. It is one thing to fling together one of Jamie’s salads or one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s roasts, but it is quite another to coax a gorgeous risotto from various combinations of stock, rice, onion and butter.
In Giorgio Locatelli’s restaurant, they set a timer for 17 minutes for the newbies learning to cook risotto, and it must be cooked within that time. I have never cooked risotto anywhere close to this time — mine usually takes about half an hour — but I did discover, after my first five or so attempts, that cooking the rice on the highest heat speeded up the whole process, and as you’re meant to be constantly stirring, it shouldn’t burn or stick to the bottom. Use the biggest heavy-based pot you own, and have the stock simmering in another pot on the stove as you cook.
And if you’re going to use crappy stock, you can just forget it. Sorry.
Everyone who loves to make risotto develops their own personal relationship with it. And like any relationship, it takes a little trial and error, a little time, but if you persist until you get it right (and try not to sulk or throw too many tantrums), the results can be, well, orgasmic.
I made this one chilly winter’s evening. It’s actually a spring dish — you’re supposed to make it with fresh new peas — but I used frozen and I thought they worked out just fine. (Better than fine.) It’s a lovely dish to make if you feel like something warm and comforting, but also not too dense or heavy. I also left out the vermouth as I didn’t have any, and thought the result did not suffer for it. I’m sure it tastes even more amazing if you include it though.
Pea, ricotta and lemon zest risotto (from the River Café Green cookbook)
3kg fresh young peas [or frozen!]
250g fresh ricotta cheese, lightly beaten
Finely grated rind of two washed lemons
1.5 litres chicken stock
Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, peeled, 2 chopped
200g unsalted butter
500g spring onions, roughly chopped
400g carnaroli or arborio rice
2 tablespoons torn fresh basil leaves
150ml dry vermouth
50g Parmesan, freshly grated
1. Heat the chicken stock to boiling and check for seasoning. Bring a medium saucepan of water to the boil, and add half a tablespoon salt, the peas, half the mint and the whole garlic clove. Simmer for three to four minutes or until the peas are al dente. Drain, keeping back 150ml of the water. Return the peas, mint and garlic clove to this water and put aside.
2. Melt 150g of the butter in a large, thick-bottomed saucepan, add the onion and soften. Add the chopped garlic, then the rice, stirring to coat each grain for about two to three minutes. Add a ladle of hot stock and stir, adding another when the rice has absorbed the first. Continue stirring and adding stock for 10 minutes or until the rice is not quite al dente.
3. Add half the peas, keeping back the cooked garlic and mint and their liquor. Mash together the remainder of the peas, mint and garlic with the liquor in a food processor, then add to the risotto and stir. Stir in the basil. Add the vermouth, about 2 tablespoons of the ricotta, and the remaining butter. Test for doneness: the rice should be al dente. Serve with the remaining ricotta over each portion, sprinkled with lemon zest, salt, pepper and Parmesan.