Posts Tagged ‘Nigella’

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.


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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.

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”.


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