We tend to think of risotto as a comfort food. In its traditional form it is a rich affair laced with generous amounts of butter and Parmesan. Once, when I was involved in a television programme in Tuscany, the chef was horrified that I preferred my porcini risotto without the pounds of butter and cheese.
Traditional risotto-making also requires dedication - 20 minutes standing stirring at the stove which is not everyone's idea of an easy meal. Chefs make a virtue of this, and many have made their name with speciality risottos. An Italian restaurant is not worth its salt if it cannot produce a good risotto. So it tends to be one of those foods we prefer to order when we are out.
But maybe I can persuade you to try your families and friends with simpler versions. I am sure the purists will not be happy that these are not strictly textbook risottos. But if you wish to serve a simple, healthy meal that is low in cost, for a lunch or supper, these new risottos may add a new dimension to your repertoire.
Let's begin with a Baked Brown Rice Risotto for 4-6 people. Brown rice has a poor image because, on the whole, it is undercooked, so the sweet, natural creaminess is not released from the grains. Many people think of it as a hippy food. Let's change all that and dare I say it, the whole method of cooking. For this recipe, it is worth seeking out organic short grain rice. Set your oven to 200°C, gas mark 6. Sweat one onion, gently in a dessert-spoonful of olive oil, if possible in a cast-iron casserole that can after be placed in the oven - if not ,you will have to transfer the mixture.
When soft add 350g, 12oz rice and cook it gently so it begins to absorb the delicious flavours. Now add one crushed clove of garlic and 300ml, 10floz of wine (dry white suits vegetable and chicken risottos, but red is amazing combined with tomatoes and chilli), plus 1.2 litres or three pints of vegetable stock.
Stir over the heat until the alcohol has evaporated and the wine taste remains. Bake the mixture for one hour until the rice is soft and creamy. This is the base and from here it's up to you.
You can sauté fresh mushrooms with a little garlic added or you can throw in soaked, cooked porcini mushrooms for a rich earthy flavour. Or, as we look forward to spring, there are classic additions like trimmed and cut asparagus with broad beans and parsley with the grated zest of a lemon, adding when just tender and enriching with a little fromage frais. Or add a 400g, 14oz tin of chopped tomatoes with a pinch of dried chilli flakes and some cooked, leftover chicken.
Or you could break away from rice altogether and use quinoa -the Aztec grain which has recently become popular in the west and is now fashionable in smart restaurants.
A lemon chickpea and quinoa risotto with steamed spinach and toasted pine-nuts
Makes 4-6 portions
● 1 dessert spoon olive oil
● 200g, 7oz quinoa
● 1 packet ready sliced onions
● 1.2 litres, 3 pints vegetable or chicken stock ready heated
● 1 clove garlic crushed
● 400g can chickpeas
● 60g, 2oz currants
● 60g, 2oz pine nuts
● Packet fresh spinach
● 1 teasp ground coriander
● 3 cardamom pods, ground, husks removed
● 1 heaped teasp cinnamon
● 25g freshly chopped mint
● 25g freshly chopped dill
● Grated rind and juice of ½ lemon
● Freshly milled salt, pepper
● Chopped fresh coriander
● Sweat onions in oil until soft then add the spices, toasting until the pan is scented with a sweet aroma.
● Add quinoa and garlic, stirring occasionally. Add hot stock and simmer for approx 12 minutes.
● Toast pine-nuts gently in a warm oven for 5 minutes.
● Wash spinach.
● Add drained tin of chickpeas, currants, pine nuts, lemon rind and juice and washed spinach.
● Simmer, stirring occasionally for a few minutes until the quinoa tails pop.
● Add herbs, season and serve hot or cold as a salad.