In search of the perfect risotto

In anticipation of my work experience, I’ve been trying out recipes from this month’s delicious. magazine and can highly recommend every single one I’ve made. The most life-changing recipes – and I don’t use those words lightly – are definitely the risottos used making a soup-base instead of a stock-base. Back when my cooking was a little more eccentric, when adding halloumi to a soup didn’t seem like an unreasonable idea, I used to cook risottos at least twice a week, each time adding some other strange ingredient and making it taste weird. The whole experience rather scarred me, and I haven’t really touched a risotto since.

I did have the occasional amazing risotto, particularly after following Jamie’s basic risotto instructions and adding something special, like chestnut mushrooms from the farmer’s market simmered in red wine. The phrase ‘massaging the creamy starch out of the rice‘ in particular is key to a nice creamy consistency. But even having mastered the creaminess – and holding myself back from over-experimental ingredients – there’s no getting around another fundamental flaw of my risottos: the stock.

I’ve already mentioned my futile dreams of becoming a Martha Stewart-style domestic goddess, surrounded by homemade cheeses and preserves, expertly throwing together elaborate meals with ease. Probably with vegetables from the back garden. But at the moment I’m still rather far off. Although I’d love to say I throw odds and ends into a stockpot, freezing batches into ice-cube trays on one of those mythical days where I have nothing to do – it’s just not true. Bouillon powder is often an adequate substitute, but when it comes to risotto the stock is so key that I find it often ends up tasting…well, tasting like bouillon.

The finished Jerusalem artichoke risotto, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with fennel seeds

What these recipes in delicious. do is bypass this stage completely. Whizzing up a soup takes no time at all (obviously a blender helps), and using this in the place of stock guarantees the rice will absorb all the flavour, leaving you with an even creamier risotto in which your choice of vegetable – or meat – takes centre stage.

I just can’t get over what a good idea that is. Since making it, I have found myself drunkenly ranting about it on more than one occasion. If that’s not the mark of a good recipe, I don’t know what is.

The first I tried was the Jerusalem artichoke and fennel seed risotto. I’d never had Jerusalem artichokes before and I even had to look them up on google images while standing in the greengrocers.

Jerusalem artichoke

I don’t know quite how to describe their flavour, but vegetable-wise I’d say they’re most similar to celeriac. This risotto was absolutely perfect – one of the best things I’ve ever cooked. I didn’t feel the need to alter the recipe in any way.  I tried the butternut squash one too, which was lovely, but could probably have done with some blue cheese to balance out the sweetness of it.


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Cake stands make everyone’s lives better

Even the sloppy inelegance of this cappuccino cake looks amazing. It settled into itself by the morning, too.

I come from a large family and I’ve got into the habit of asking for ‘anything to do with food’ for any gift, because I know whatever it is, I’ll be excited. Walking around the homeware section of John Lewis dreaming of my future kitchen is one of my favourite activities. When, you know, I’m not doing much more exciting things.

Anyway, amazingly for me, my brother and sister-in-law got me a Christmas present straight from that section: a cake stand, in pastel blue. Putting any pathetic cake on it, and squinting a bit, brings to life all my fantasies of domesticity, or owning a French pattisserie, and generally being a better person. And, altogether, just makes every cake look a million times more impressive.

Trying to imagine the perfect birthday cake for my ever-dieting housemate, I decided a cappuccino, for those times she drinks too much coffee and talks as fast as she does on her blog. I followed a good old reliable recipe from the British Broadcasting Corporation,  which I do heartily recommend. No cake with mascarpone can ever be a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned, and I’m not even a fan of coffee cake.

But the recipe’s not the point – my point is this. Get a cake stand. The most inelegant piece of slop on a cake stand will impress more than the most beautiful cake ever made plonked onto some dinner plate.  Get a cake stand. Your life will be better.

PS: Look at the page of cake stands on the John Lewis website, and I implore you not to go as doey-eyed and lovesick as I did.

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Cooking Christmas dinner for 16 fussy vegetarians

Apologies for such a long break from blogging – I was rushed off my feet, first with deadlines, and then preparing for Christmas. Cooking a six-course Christmas meal for 16 people is not a feat to be taken lightly. I’ve never cooked under such pressure, as Christmas seems to be the one day a year when a few mistakes will be magnified, rather than glossed over, particularly in a family full of food enthusiasts.

The most stressful course was probably the loveliest – fresh ravioli, stacked openly stuffed with layers of butternut squash, roasted before being mashed with truffle oil, alternating with chestnut mushrooms fried in garlic. The presentation was beautiful, though I must give credit to my brother for this as he  professionally swirled olive oil over the plate, dotting the edges with diced roast beetroot and mushrooms. Lovely idea, lovely food, but 16 plates was definitely ambitious. At times I felt as if Michel Roux Jr was somehow standing behind me, clapping his hands to speed us up, as my family sat round the table chanting ‘Why are we waiting?’. In retrospect, this should have been the first course. Then everyone would have shut up.

One area I definitely feel confident to have excelled in was the cheeseboard. The above-mentioned time pressure meant that my photo doesn’t express quite how beautiful it looked. I managed to get a few of my favourites from the Masterchef food show again – Amber Mist, by the Snowdonia Cheese Company, was a favourite. My seven-year-old nephew even loved it – though I’m not sure he should have been eating it. A smoked brie from Millets Farm Shop in Oxford also went down well. Although, to my slight disappointment, some of the classics from other years were probably the favourites again. Swaledale, a hard ewe’s cheese, was eaten most rapidly, and Cornish Yarg, a highly accessible cheese, managed to impress my Thai relatives. Although I didn’t manage to blow anyone away more than other years, as a whole it was better balanced than before. In other years we’ve gone a bit overboard with dinner – starting off with eight courses – and last year I filled three hampers with £75 of cheese which simply festered away after Christmas. This year dinner was much lighter than before, and I tried to get a good selection of different cheeses, rather than just buying everything I liked. To blow our own trumpet, the whole thing was a huge success – hopefully this year my Mum won’t make a word document to list our failures with over-feeding. It’s just as well too, because having eaten solidly for about three weeks, I need to stay away from cheese for a while. I’m going to try and make low-fat versions of all my favourite foods over the next few weeks, hopefully something nice enough to stop me missing cheese so much. Hope everyone else had a lovely foodie Christmas too.

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Time to get back in the kitchen?

Apologies for the lack of blog-love lately, my features got rather on top of me for a little while.

Something I couldn’t help but notice at the Masterchef Live show was the abundance of cupcake stalls. Many were heaving with beautifully decorated cakes,  surrounded by bunting and polka-dot, apt for a company with a name like Cute Country Cupcakes.

Just as many were selling paisley cases, edible glitter and sugar flowers to replicate these cakes at home. My sister, who was with me, is absolutely crazy about cupcakes and came close to spending £10 on disposable cupcake cases. American commentators have been moaning about the rise in cupcakes for some time, some even suggesting that cupcakes are selfish. And the craze has hit Britain in a big way.

Why? Cupcakes seem to be endemic of the larger trend for “kitsch” which has had all my friends knitting tea cosies for quite some time, and as I admitted before is one of the reasons why I fill my cupboards with chutney around this time every year. It seems odd that in a post-feminist society, women would make a conscious decision to associate themselves with such symbols of domestic oppression.

Tea Cosy: Sinister symbol of female oppression?

The key, however, is the choice. For a long time, baking, knitting and other domestic crafts were the only way in which women could express themselves. Now we live in a society in which we have the choice to neglect these completely. But why does equality mean we have to embrace only non-domestic, masculine crafts and pastimes?

Cupcakes don’t sound like much of a platform for feminist revolution, but as Tanis Taylor argues so well about knitting, they can help recreate community spirit which is so often lost in today’s multi-screened world. Spending a few hours doing something which actually creates something is undeniably satisfying. To be able to see the product of your effort makes craft worthwhile, whether the end product be a knitted tea-cosy, jar after jar of chutney, or a ridiculous looking confectionary product decorated with cartoon dinosaurs.

Cupcakes: Selfish or feminist throwbacks?

At the end of the day though, cupcakes are a food product before they are any kind of feminist symbol, and I accept that. But to lambast them for being symptomatic of an increasing infantile obsession with “cuteness” as Vanity Fair have this month seems a little ridiculous. I also don’t take kindly to the idea that their individual sizing makes them in anyway selfish, or emblematic of a “me-me-me” generation. Conversely, their portability makes them ideal for gifts. Especially if they are anywhere near as elaborate as Katjas Kupcakes, for example, making them a work of art that it would seem a shame to eat. As for me, after a few hours leering at my cupcake, I ate it all with a worrying desperation. Then felt sick.

My delicious cupcake from Cute Country Cupcakes

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Fiona Beckett

I was lucky enough to speak to Fiona Beckett, a local food writer whose writing includes the Beyond Baked Beans series aimed at students, her latest book about cheese and a blog about, er, cheese. You can see why I like her. Here’s what she said:

I did lots of other things when I was younger. This was actually a sort of mid-life career switch. I kind of suddenly realised that I would like to have been a journalist, and I wished I had been.

You have to work hard and you have to look for opportunities but you also have to be lucky, and I was lucky. Sainsbury’s Magazine wanted a piece on organic food, with a couple of recipes. They just said ‘Well you write recipes don’t you?’ And I just said yes, as you do.

I taught myself to cook; I’m not a trained cook at all. I have to say I taught myself to cook largely from Delia Smith. She is very good. Her recipes work. I worked subsequently for Sainsbury’s Magazine which she and her husband then owned, and there was a tremendous ethos of having very clear recipes with exact quantities, and that recipes must work.

There’s no shortage of inspiration, and I am an inveterate cookbook collector, I cannot resist them. Even though I’ve got hundreds, literally, I’m always acquiring more one way or the other.

Italy is always inspiring. It is so true to its own traditions. Apart from Milan, where they’re much more experimental, most Italian towns and restaurants serve the same sort of dishes they probably served 30 years ago, and the Italians like it that way. The Italians get quite disorientated when they leave their home country and can’t have a meal that includes pasta as a second course. It’s the most unspoilt, unadulterated cuisine.

I have eaten in bad restaurants, definitely. A restaurant is more than just the food is the main thing I’ve learnt. Food can be wonderful but if all the other things are not in place you can actually have quite a miserable experience.

The standard in restaurants is far, far higher than it was when I started. There are some fantastic restaurants all over the country now.

People are less and less wanting to cook from scratch. Though we talk a lot about food, and we read cookery books, and watch food programmes, it hasn’t actually resulted in a nation which is passionate about cooking. I’d say cooking skills were probably worse than when I started 20 years ago. There are a lot of people who don’t know how to cook still.

Publishing is certainly in a state of some turmoil. I think a lot of publishers are being more cautious about the titles they publish, because of the economic situation, and because of what’s happening on the internet. So they are tending to stick with the big names, the celebrity chefs.

I think I am most pleased to have written the student series Beyond Baked Beans. I think if I’ve actually managed to teach a few students to cook, and they’ve become confident cooks as a result, that feels like a worthwhile thing to have done. That’s worth writing a book for.

Although there were cookbooks for students they were sort of stuck in the dark ages. They all had dishes like casseroles made with tinned tuna, or condensed mushroom soup with sprinkled crisps on the top. I just thought the world has moved on, students typically have travelled quite a lot, may well have eaten out.

Students are more resistant to the kind of ingredients I might have written about for The Frugal Cook. I wouldn’t say students as a body were fantastically keen on offal, for example. I think there are some ingredients that I think would turn students off a bit.

After a while, if you have a blog or column on a particular subject, you kind of think, ‘Well, I’ve said everything.’ I’ve given up regular slots in the past partly because I think I’ve kind of run out of steam on it and wanted to do other things

The internet has also opened up the possibility for people to become a food writer if they want. They can also publish a book. In fact, I’ve just done that with a local chef in Bristol. We worked together on it, we found a designer, we found a printer, and we’ve done it in a slightly unusual way. The internet creates possibilities, I think; it opens doors as well as possibly closing them.

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Masterchef Live 2009

Thought I’d just give a quick run-through of the most exceptional things at Masterchef Live this year. The sheer scale of it elevated it above the average food fair, though I did surprise myself by the amount of food I actually recognised from other shows.

Almost all the cheese was familiar,  but of course welcome all the same. There was a lot of good cheese, but if I had to be more specific I’d say the top three were:

Oxford Blue: An old favourite of mine from the Oxford Cheese Company. It has a creamy texture but with incredible depth of flavour. A truckle of this is probably the keystone of my family’s christmas eating.

Amber Mist: This was already familiar to me from the British Cheese Festival. I never usually like ‘novelty cheeses’, by which I mean Cheddar or other white cheeses stuffed with fruit, herbs and whatever else was lying around the kitchen. The range of Cheddars from the Snowdonia Cheese Company, however, is exceptionally well-made. The texture is probably key to Amber Mist, as well as a suitably wistful name, as the cheese melts into your mouth to leave you with the subtle aftertaste of whiskey. Lovely.

Cornish Blue:  I’m definitely a bit biased towards blue cheese, and I have a bit of a soft spot for this company in general. They sell truckles in really attractive blue ceramic which would definitely come in useful for something, at some point. Not only that, but they also make two ridiculously tasty pates which it is impossible to choose between – blue with fig, and blue with pear and walnut.

Other than that, my favourite exhibitors were:

Thunder Toffee Vodka: Partly because they gave me a free shot every time I walked past.  But also, again, although I usually don’t like flavoured vodkas, this was really well made and really tasted like toffee. I can imagine it being nice in one or two sweet cocktails at the beginning of the night.

Black Garlic: Not necessarily because it changed my view of garlic – more because it was so weird. Tasted like a really mild garlic with the consistency of a wine gum. Odd.

Mr Vikki’s: This company was also a revelation, but more due to its tastes rather than strangeness. There were a lot of good chutneys and preserves at the show, but these really stood out. I bought the Banana Habanero which I was determined to find a good companion for, and it’s actually proved incredibly versatile. The sweetness of the banana is offset by a fiery kick, and it goes well alongside any coconut-based curry, and the website even suggests a ham sandwich.

The Good Chutney Company: More preserves, but again with something really special about them. I particularly like the Curried Rhubarb Chutney, and the Fiery Bengal Chutney.

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It’s all very exciting at the moment.

Firstly, I’m going to Masterchef Live in London at the weekend. I’ve never been to a Good Food show before and I’m pretty excited about an entire venue full of food. Plus some top-class celebrities like James Martin and Steve from Masterchef.

Mostly, though, I’m excited about Saddy Radish’s homemade ricotta recipe. I’m going to make it next week to have with some homemade pizza. It seems I can finally be one step closer to my dream of cheese-making. Especially as it seems like even Martin from Coronation Street is doing it these days. It’s like a strange, much less glamourous version of a celebrity clothing line.

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