Archive for the ‘cooking’ Category

Cooking Risotto

September 15, 2014

I have been cooking for many years, sometimes with courage, sometimes with cowardice, but I’d never cooked risotto.


Partly because I’d heard that risotto is notoriously difficult to prepare.

Anyway, who could be bothered eating boring old stodgy rice when pasta is so fabulous and varied?  And easy. Marcella Hazan warns:  [risotto] is the most misunderstood of all the well-known Italian dishes.  

Marcella Hazan

Her description of the basic technique takes up a closely written page and a half  – and that’s before you get on to the recipes.  Maybe this is why some of my friends shudder when I mention risotto?  That sharp indrawn breath that’s almost a whistle whips through pursed lips – only partly in jest.

By Marcella’s standards, Margaret Fulton  (in the 1969 cookbook Mum gave me when I first left home) gets it horribly wrong – and she doesn’t even give a recipe!  (Don’t get me wrong – Margaret Fulton gets lots of stuff right – her book was my cookery bible for decades. )

2014-09-12 10.16.16

lost its dust jacket, and a little gnawed by a puppy in 2007

Rice for Italian risotto is prepared by first putting the unwashed, uncooked rice into hot oil or fat and frying to brown a little.  Stock or other liquid is then added and the rice stirred until the liquid boils.  The dish is then simmered or slowly baked until the rice is cooked.

Lovely Nigella Lawson, who has built a career on making cookery look easy, tells me about ‘stirring constantly’.  It’s knife-edge stuff.


But after much careful stirring and measuring, she offers comfort:

Then continue in this surprisingly peaceable manner. . . .

It’s a  little rubric, almost a mantra, that makes me feel that it’s all possible. But still, she’s a chef, and also, she moves on rapidly, after a crab risotto recipe, to various kinds of ways of making pasta seem a little risotto-like.  Maybe she, too, prefers pasta?

So:  fear, distaste and mild revulsion (gluggy rice! urk!) coupled with reluctance to bother – all characterised my attitude to risotto as a concept.

Tosca’s Mamma changed all that on our last night at Riva del Garda.


2014-07-01 07.49.34

Mountains above Riva del Garda


She served us an amazing, fabulous, creamy, savoury, smooth dish of something that may once have been rice but had now married with an extraordinarily delicious kind of mushroom and gone to heaven.  She achieved this apparently without effort or attention, while showing us around her lush vegetable garden.  Nigella, eat your heart out!  I’m no foodie, but I came home planning to make a breakthrough and learn how to cook risotto.  (I use the teach-yourself method. As any of my friends will tell you, I’m a hopeless, even recalcitrant listener.  My bootstraps are yards long after all the dragging I’ve done on them.)

The first risotto I made was according to Marcella.  I used the nice long grain rice in my cupboard and some posh mushrooms.  It was OK.  The mushrooms were nice but the rice was really just like cooked rice.  Obviously I had to buy the right kind of rice after all – arborio rice.  Even I have heard of that, though reluctant to spend up big for something as ordinary as rice.  Turns out I am still behind the curve – you can get quite a variety of kinds of rice all specially for risotto.  My hand hovered over the shelves of infinite varieties of rice, and plumped for arborio.  It sat in the cupboard.

A few weeks later, then, I had a go at my second risotto.  I refelected on my mistakes and tweaked several other things.   I must have cooked the first one too long, I decided.  With the right sort of rice, I used a stock cube as instructed.   So I ended up with a dish that was a little crunchy – not creamy soft at all.   And it tasted of chicken stock cube, about which the kindest thing to say is that it tastes commercial.  The smell reminds me of that packet chicken noodle soup we used to have as kids.

chicken noodle

We didn’t use Batchelor’s but I thought you would like this artwork.

It’s a smell of poverty and you can still nose it drifting from somebody’s Pot Noodle if you are not careful.

noodle soup

We actually had Continental brand.  Here’s a B&W version of the packets that stocked our cupboards – that and mushroom soup were the great favourites in our family.  Needless to say, nobody in our world ever simpered like this poor woman, huddled as she is inside the borders of the advertisement.

My third attempt  – weeks later again – happened by chance really.  I was just back from some distant place, out of everything I could prepare for a meal, and too tired to shop. I generally take this kind of situation as a challenge.  In the freezer there was just a bag of turkey giblets left over from Christmas.  (Yes – I know it’s now September.)   So I made a fabulous stock using those plus the random bendy carrots I found in the veggie drawer, and half a fairly fresh leek plus some chives from the garden and garlic (obviously) and some dried herbs.  Bubble for an hour.  It looked and smelt pretty good.  My usual move at that point would be to make soup – but there in the cupboard, right by the split peas, was the second half of the packet of arborio rice.  And so it began.

This time it involved careful simultaneous reading in all three of those cookbooks, following Marcella’s technique and channelling Nigella’s relaxed style.  And the quantities she gives, as well.  I opened a bottle of the white wine I made in France a few years ago – it never matured properly, and it’s a bit resiny, but a small tot while cooking passes muster.  And anyway, Nigella calls for a glass of wine to start off the rice.  So I sipped and stirred, stirred and sipped.  And ladling bit by bit wasn’t the drudgery people make it out to be.  In the end I had surprisingly used the whole litre of stock, and while stirring and sipping had idly stripped the turkey meat from its bones, ready to chuck into the risotto.  (After all, Marcella does say that it’s not a recipe so much as an adaptable style of cooking.  That’s my kind of cuisine!)

Well – you know the punchline: it was truly wonderful.  Rich and thick and creamy, and so abundant!  I couldn’t finish it at a sitting.  (Well – she does say ‘serves two’.)

Is there a motto?  Maybe it’s ‘Read the Recipe!!’  ?

Or maybe it’s ‘Be Careful which Bits you Ignore‘ – because I can tell you that two of Marcella’s comments can be disregarded (though Nigella is right about the chilli):

1.  you really can re-heat risotto,and –

2.  you really can eat it again the next day.  

Straight from the fridge if you are so minded.

eating a goose

October 23, 2013

Here in Berlin lots of restaurants are advertising special goose-oriented menus for the 11th November.

I'm starting to get the hang of Germany, and I bet they eat a lot more than just this.

I’m starting to get the hang of Germany, and I bet they eat a lot more than just this.

So I checked it out online –

Unser Martinsgans-Menü 2013

(auf Vorbestellung)


Amuse bouche

Karamelisierte Gänseleber

auf Thymian-Zwetschgen

und geröstetem Sellerie


Ofenfrische bayrische Martinsgans,

mit Akazienhonig glasiert,

auf Preiselbeer-Rotkohl, Apfel-Maronenpürée

und kleinen Kartoffelknödeln


Kreation von Mandelnougat,

Pattaya-Mango und Madagascar-Vanille


€ 46,- / Person

In the UK, needless to say, the 11th is all about remembrance and the end of World War One on that date.  People try to say that it has something to do with peace – I’m not convinced.

and lots of people wear these things -

and lots of people wear these things –

I wondered how roast goose might fit into this.  The answer is:  it doesn’t.  What a pity!  I suggest we find ways of bringing a roast goose feast back to the UK.  And quickly, too – preferably within the next fortnight or so, what with the eleventh of November rushing towards us.

It turns out that roast goose is part of a much older tradition – and the nicest saint I have ever read about.  The 11th of November is also Saint Martin’s day, and I have to tell you straight away that I’ve found out all this information from a charming wiki entry which I propose now to plagiarise shamelessly.   Saint Martin is the first saint not to have been martyred (there’s a relief) –

not normally a happy experience

not normally a happy experience – this is Saint Sebastian.  I just chose him at random for you.

– he died of natural causes in the fourth century.  The eleventh is an ecumenical date too. Martin Luther was baptised on that day, and so Protestants can celebrate the date as well.  (His parents probably didn’t realise he wouldn’t grow up to be a Catholic.)  Now all we need is a Hindu and a Buddhist connection . . . . No wait on.  I guess the Buddhists wouldn’t want a big roast-goose oriented blow-out.  (Though, bizarrely, there is an eating- goose-Buddha connection.)

a structure that celebrates not eating geese

a structure that celebrates not eating geese

St Martin turns out to have been a great guy.  He gave up being a soldier once he became Christian, which suggests some moral fibre, not to mention a fine capacity with logic.  He is also the guy who divided his cloak with the beggar – showing both generosity and fair-mindedness.

always nice to post a medieval image - the more famous paintings of St Martin show him as a knight in armour, which seems a bit anachronistic

always nice to post a medieval image – the more famous paintings of St Martin show him as a knight in armour, which seems a bit anachronistic

It gets better and better – he went to work for a guy called Hilarius, he missed his parents, and he lived in France (his full title is St Martin of Tours) as a bit of a hermit.  Tours must have been a very different place in those days.  I can relate to that ‘hermit in France’ thing – if his French was anything like mine, it’s more or less imposed on you.  Maybe Hilarius’s French was better – they made him Pope.

later Pope

later Pope

We are told that he died of an illness contracted on his travels  – not quite the same as ‘quietly at home’ but maybe that’s how he would have wanted to go.  I also like it that he isn’t festooned around with loads of improbable miracles, but he seems to have been a saint because lots of people liked him and he was just plain good.

It seems mean to leave you without an actual recipe for the roast goose – but, inspired by St Martin’s example, I cannot tell a lie: I have never roasted a goose.  And so your choice amongst the internet recipes is likely to be as good as mine.  (I like the look of the Hairy Bikers’ version though, as we have lots of apples this year.)

Lastly I am motivated to roast a goose this year because my lovely son William, who has his birthday on the 14th, will be at home – and that’s near enough for me!

Bundt cake part 2

December 24, 2012

A soddy cake: my mother’s name for a cake that hadn’t cooked properly – most of hers were soddy.  She said the word with a kind of rueful pleasure – Schadenfreude. I suppose, except it was her own dismay that triggered it.  Selbstshadenfreude, therefore?  There are reasons for a soddy cake: perhaps people stamped or trod heavily while it was cooking; perhaps there had been an angry voice.  Anger was known to ruin the rising of cakes.  So we crept around the kitchen, trying to be nice to one another.  Still the cakes fell.  Sometimes it was the oven’s fault (and by extension, the landlord’s fault – another in the catalogue chalked up against him) – the door didn’t fit, or she looked inside too soon (no glass doors in those days).  They were always packet cake mixes – Mum loved (and loves) innovations.   

It may be a very old word: in early modern English ‘sodden’ or ‘sothen’ means ‘boiled’ (the present tense is ‘seethe’).  Meat might be ‘roast or sod’ in the sixteenth century.[1]  Of course Mum was having a sneaky little giggle because a ‘sod’ was a term of abuse for anyone you felt was behaving meanly, but also a sodomite, and so an obscenity in the intolerant world of the fifties.  A child could detect the giggly sneer and the rudeness, even without knowing the derivation.  She loved to get away with things – and a fallen cake allowed her to get away with using the word and the smutty reference in front of children.


You’ve guessed by now that the lovely Bundt cake was almost totally uncooked inside.  The outside a lovely golden brown, it slipped eagerly out of the tin.  I put it on my mother-in-law’s glamorous blue-and-white Victorian cake plate, dusted it with icing sugar, and it was a gorgeous sight to behold, its peaks dominating the table of party food.  Until I cut into it: Alas! a solid, greyish-gluggy, inedible interior.  A truly soddy cake.  That damn oven! 


In that wakeful moment in the small hours I remembered how I had mixed it.  I adore that word ‘blitz’ that Nigella uses, but it is ambiguous.  How long do you blitz for?  And I thought about those meanings: ‘Blitzen’, the reindeer paired with Donner, is of course ‘lightning’ – a short sharp shock – yoked with her mate, the thunder.  (Are the reindeer gendered?  I suppose Vixen is – but the others?)  In comparison, I had blitzed that cake mixture to hell and back.  Somewhere in the depths of my mind I recalled a recipe book’s advice: “Do not overbeat the eggs.”  But in what context?  Anyway, I can tell you that overbeating the eggy mixture, followed by putting the cake into too hot an oven, in an overgreased tin, then turning the oven down too far, to compensate for the initial error – – – well, that’s a recipe for disaster!!

Just a dream of perfection: an image found online

Just a dream of perfection: an image found online

[1]Andrew Boorde’s Compendyous Regyment or Dyetary of Health of 1542, “Potage is made of the lyquor in which fleshe is soden [boiled] in , with puttyng-to chopped herbes and otemel and salt”.


Kitchen Disasters – the Voice of Experience

December 21, 2012

I’m feeling tense preparing for the little party we are having on the weekend: first party in the new, downsized, tiny house, so ‘party’ isn’t quite the word.  More a small collection of local people – dog walkers from the Eagle Rec., fellow drinkers from the pub that shut down recently.

(I hear that they’re going to build flash houses for pseuds on the lovely old orchard that was the beer garden. )

We might be able to shoehorn twenty folk into the living room, if they don’t mind a squeeze.  Then I was told that Saturday night holds unmissable TV – the final of Strictly Come Dancing.  So maybe it will be a very small group indeed

Today I am baking – a catalogue of disasters real and imagined.  First, I need to boil up some white rice – the only rice in the cupboard is whole grain or expensive organic arborio.  This is for a puppy with diarrhea – so it’s the arborio, then.  While that was bubbling and then cooling, I iced the Christmas cake – the best royal icing I’ve made in years, since usually it’s too runny.  I don’t do that skating-rink smooth icing (don’t?  I mean can’t) and I don’t much feel like flicking it up all over – that’s fun occasionally but not every year.  And I realised that actually I like the rough-hewn look you get from just running a knife over the top, and letting the marks fall where they may.  Maybe we can tell fortunes that way?  A cake fortune-teller – and a fake fortune-teller,  like the frog in The Mouse and His Child.  But handling the cake brought home to me how soft it feels.  It looks paler than it should, too.  Is it perhaps undercooked?  Oh the embarrassment of cutting it and finding it is still raw dough – and rather old raw dough, at that, as it has been maturing on top of the fridge for weeks, fed with brandy, in the proper style.  So it will be well preserved and sloppy – perhaps even drinkable – uncooked cake.  Maybe I can just shrug it off and shout ‘Yum Yum!’  Pass it off as a new seasonal cocktail?

Set off to make pumpkin pies – scrupulously carefully – this year using an uncooked pastry –  pate brisée from The Joy of Cooking.  Delighted to realise that the icing needed egg whites and the pastry needed yolks.  Terrific!  That drying crust of part-egg waiting forlornly in a cup at the back of the fridge won’t happen this year.   The pastry – obediently well-chilled – went solid in the fridge (is it supposed to?) and, solid yet sticky, wrapped itself around the winebottle I was using as rolling pin, tearing here and there as it stuck and fell back over and over.  Fingers work best to press it into shape, and I went over the bases scrupulously sticking and pressing bits of stray pastry wherever there were holes.  I’ve had this happen before – the filling seeps through those invisible gaps and forms a delicious but unsightly baked-on mass below the pastry.  Nobody eats this but me, and there’s far too much of it to throw away.  All those good ingredients!  (my mother’s voice, of course).  But this time will be different – and I think it just about is.  There’s no big mixing bowl this year – it went with my husband to his flat, when we divided up our possessions.  He texts he can bring it round later, but I want to pie onwards now, now, now!  So I opt for the blender.  Maybe this year the pies won’t be fibrous, with those dubiously-mashed bits of pumpkin I usually give up on too soon.  Also, this year, with little storage space, I haven’t kept a pumpkin from November, but bought a butternut squash.  (Well – in Australia we call them butternut pumpkins – so I reckon they can make a pumpkin pie as well as the next one – though never as well as a proper, solid Queensland Blue – but that’s another story.)  I check back in Joy of Cooking and find that the recipe says ‘Pumpkin or Squash Pie’ – so all the bases are covered.  I’ve forgotten to get Ideal milk, and can’t wait for the groceries to arrive, so I substitute crème fraiche and yogurt.  (I’ve used yogurt before, with great success.)  One of the crème fraiche pots is nearly a week past its sell-by date – but it tastes fine.  If anything, slightly milder than yesterday’s.  I don’t think it will poison anybody.  Vast quanitites of pale mixture zap around in the blender – I like Nigella’s term ‘blitz’.  Ah blitzed them stringy varmints down to a light cream.  As usual, I have far more mixture than I need – maybe something goes wrong in translating American volume measurements into UK weights – so once the pies are in the oven, write myself a pencil note in the recipe book.  ‘Always too much of this.’  Satisfying: I like marginalia in general, but especially in recipe books.  Ruthlessly, I tipped the leftover deliciousness straight down the sink.  Normally I would wait for it to go mouldy-green and stinking before tipping it out, but today I need the blender for other things.

The oven is an enigma – an oven of extremes.  At high temperatures it seems fairly accurate, but lower and middling ones are seriously low – so it seems that one can cook on hot or on cool, but never on moderate.  The warming-up time is leisurely.  My oven of extremes: passionately hot, or cold and unresponsive.  Manic-depressive oven. (There may be a connection between this and the state of the Christmas cake.) Right now it is taking an hour and a half to bake pumpkin pies – which should take an hour – and they are still pale on top.

And so Thursday passed into evening – I was doing well, so obviously that was the moment to open a bottle of red wine with a friend, and then when she went away, to open another with my stepson.  Midnight is too late for me (and certainly too late for an early-rising company chef).  Friday wasn’t going to be easy.

The pies came out fine – with some extra time.  Same for the chocolate brownies, which I have never made before.  The clue is to believe that they are done even when they don’t look done.  (My chef stepson’s words – a mantra to hold to as the afternoon wears on.  That, and remembering the time when I didn’t know that about biscuits: I baked and baked them to a crisp, not realising that they would crisp up once out of the oven.  I don’t think I have tried to make biscuits since.)  Needless to say I faithfully took the brownies out of the oven before they looked cooked (and anyway, we had a date to go uptown, Christmas shopping with two grandkids).  Maybe they are undercooked, like the Christmas cake.  ‘Bung ’em in the fridge,’ says my stepson, ‘they’ll firm up’.  And I do, and they do.  And later on – after a brisk shopping session and a trip to MacDonald’s – the youngest grandson has first slice of the Christmas cake.  It’s a bit pale – and oversweet to my taste – but it seems cooked enough.  The bundt cake is another story – I think I over-oiled the tin, tried to compensate for the cool oven by turning it up to start with, then felt guilty and turned it down again. The cake has come out partly-fried on its edges and not well risen.  Too hot and then too cool.  But at least it has held together rather better than last time.  More marginalia needed – I will note all this down in my copy of Nigella’s Christmas.  

I will defrost the pack of red summer fruits and use crème fraiche to disguise the shortcomings.  Gleaming in their various icy reds, the blackcurrants and redcurrants, the raspberries and blackberries look gorgeously Christmassy.  Youngest grandchild tells us all many times: ‘Those red berries are poison – you can’t eat them.’  He is very persistent, and listening to explanations is not his strong suit.  I suppose he has been told about holly berries, and there may be an element of Snow White in there as well.  Wickedly witchy, I, the stepgrandmother, hold the glowing plateful out to him.  As the kitchen’s warm fug touches the berries, a white sheen of frost forms, wonderfully or horribly, depending on your point of view.

In tune with the themes of this post, wordpress seems reluctant to let me upload pictures today.  I’ll fight that battle another day – in the meantime, my apologies – just use your imaginations, please.

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