Insert risotto pun here. 

I’m at a loss. Risotto does plenty for my appetite, but fails to inspire a decent title for this post.  In risotto’s defence, it is a superb dish for using up ingredients, and that’s good news towards the end of a week.

Is it a regular on our menu at home? Nope.  Risotto doesn’t lend itself to nightly meals with children around.  Like children, it requires close attention and this alone relegates the dish to weekend cooking.  Take your eye off the pan and the rice will begin to crisp and burn without more stock.  The resulting crust, which is sought after in a paella, ruins a risotto completely.

Slow, slowly.  Risotto is not something to be rushed.  Choose ingredients carefully and add them at the right time for a satisfying result.

Chicken and Parmesan risotto

3 chicken thighs (cooked)

250g arborio rice

125ml white wine

4 slices smoked ham (cut into strips)

A couple of handfuls frozen peas

1 onion (finely chopped)

Grated parmesan

Chicken stock

Extra virgin olive oil 

Butter

Sea salt

Black pepper

The ingredients listed here do not all contain measures because the risotto can be altered to suit tastes. For example, I love black pepper and always add more than some people would like.

Start by removing all of the meat from the cooked chicken thighs and cutting it into smaller pieces for the risotto. I tend to discard the skin.  Set the chicken aside.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil in a frying pan and add the rice. Stir until coated with the oil and cook on a low heat.  Add a little butter. When the rice is opaque, add the onion and stir well again. Add the wine and cook for two minutes.  As the onion softens, pour in some of the stock and stir.

Continue to add stock as it is absorbed. Don’t let the rice burn. Stir gently and add the frozen peas and the ham.

Keep the heat low and add the chicken pieces and some seasoning.

Taste the rice every now and again to see if it is cooked through. Add more seasoning and butter if necessary. When the rice is soft, take it off the heat and stir in the grated Parmesan. Beautiful!




But I followed the recipe to the letter!

How many times have you followed a recipe as closely as you could and finished up with nothing but an inedible mess?  I’ll admit, that even following my own recipes jotted down after countless successful outcomes, I’ve still been left wondering what went wrong on occasion.  It’s frustrating and disheartening.  It’s also one of the reasons that I don’t buy recipe books.

I love cooking and I love reading, so it should follow that recipe books line my shelves and gather in ever-growing gangs around my house.  Instead, I’ve a handful of books on my kitchen shelf and I rarely open them.  The internet has all but killed any need for recipe books.  Blogs, recipe sites and food forums share an abundance of recipes for every imaginable type of food.  Why clutter the kitchen with glossy hard backs from television chefs when a quick look on my computer or phone gives me access to countless food sites?

I’ve only ever bought one recipe book, a classic by Jane Norman to help me get to grips with basic cooking methods when I first began to take an interest in cooking.  I still refer to it from time to time and I suspect that I’ll own it forever.  The other books that line my kitchen shelf have been gifts from well-meaning friends and relatives.  Truth be told, I tend to have a glance through cookery books once and rarely pick them up again unless I’m looking for something specific.

Last week, I happened to look through a Gino D’Acampo book (another gift) and spotted a fun-looking recipe for a creamy rice pudding.  It was simple enough for a dolt like me, so I carefully arranged the ingredients on my worktop and followed the recipe sentence by perfidious sentence with confidence.  Sadly, our passionate, Italian chef seems to have little or no knowledge of the properties of arborio rice and the methods required to cook it successfully and two hours later, I was still adding milk to stubborn grains of crunchy rice.  I was fuming.  So rarely do I put my trust in the pages of slickly designed cook books, and the moment I do, betrayal occurs in the most irritating way: a recipe that doesn’t work.

Sensing the potential for adaption, I threw away the offending pot of disappointment and started afresh.  I cooked the rice as it should be, cranked up the sugar content and added two of my favourite flavours to produce a rice pudding with all the gloopy comfort that you’d need when the mood took you.

I’ve realised over the last couple of years that following a recipe closely is not a guarantee of success.  Instead, a grasp of some basic cooking techniques for whatever ingredients you’re using combined with your own instinct is a far better guide in the kitchen.  I guess that sounds like sage advice from a wisened cook.  In fact, it’s my disclaimer.

Vanilla & cinnamon rice pudding

40g Arborio rice

30g caster sugar

milk

water

half tspoon ground cinnamon

quarter tspoon vanilla paste

I cooked the rice in a milk pan by just covering it with water and simmering until the rice absorbed the water and became tender.  This took about ten minutes.  During this time, I added more water to the rice as it was absorbed and tested the rice when I thought it was cooked.

The next step was to stir in the sugar and add enough milk to cover the rice.  I stirred the milk through until the sugar had dissolved and then added a little more milk every couple of minutes over a gentle heat.  What you’re looking for is a gloopy, soft consistency where the soft rice is lost in a thick and sweet liquid.  If the mixture becomes too dry, add more milk.  If it is too watery, continue to stir it until the milk has reduced.  When I was happy with the rice, I stirred in the vanilla paste and took it off the heat to cool.  The rice becomes a little firmer upon cooling which is fine.

My recipe makes one portion, but you could easily increase the quantities.  As long as the rice is cooked through before you add the milk and sugar, the results will be satisfying.

Greek food tastes best the day after it’s made: The two-day tray.

Thank goodness that mum learned to cook lots of Greek dishes while in Crete.  It allowed me and my brother to keep our links with Greece during a confusing and rather chilly time.  Moving to England was strange and the comfort of familiar flavours was important.

One of the dishes that has graced mum’s dinner table over the years is stuffed vegetables.  Mum would spend time preparing the mixture of beef and rice with herbs and then cook a range of peppers and tomatoes in a roasting tin until the aromas filled the house with the memory of warmer days.

As children, the variety was a big draw and the colours brought excitement to the table.  For once, vegetables were the centre of the meal.  We didn’t care what mum served the stuffed vegetables with.  Often we’d have them on their own or with a salad.  They are quite filling and cheap to make; another reason why mum made them regularly.  The best part though, was knowing that we’d be eating them the next day too.  Mum always made what I came to regard as a “two-day tray”.  God bless you, mum!

Something I’ve enjoyed making is spanakorizo, which is a mixture of rice, spinach and tomatoes.  It makes a lovely side dish, but I decided to use the spanakorizo to stuff some tomatoes and peppers and roast them in the oven like mum used to.  We ate the vegetables over two days and really enjoyed them.  I hope you do too!

Spanakorizo-stuffed vegetables

4 peppers (halved)

3 beef tomatoes

350g long grain rice

350g spinach

1 tin chopped tomatoes

chicken stock

1 tblspoon dried oregano

1 tblspoon fresh mint (chopped)

1 tbslpoon tomato puree

olive oil

sea salt

pepper

Cook the rice in the chicken stock until it has absorbed the liquid and cooked through.  Add the chopped tomatoes and oregano and bring to the boil.  Add the spinach and tomato puree and simmer until the liquid has reduced.

At this point, I usually pour in a good glug of olive oil and stir it through the rice.  I also season the rice with sea salt to taste.  Grind plenty of black pepper over the rice and mix in.  Finally, stir in the chopped fresh mint.  Now you’re ready to stuff the vegetables.

Cut the peppers in half and drizzle some oil in each half before adding spoonfuls of the spanakorizo to them.  Cut a lid off each of the beef tomatoes and scoop out the seeds and flesh.  Drizzle some oil inside and then fill with the spanakorizo.

Roast the vegetables in the middle of the oven at 160C until the rice is beginning to brown and go crispy on top.  I love olive oil, so I usually drizzle all of the vegetables with more oil and season them again before they roast.  As the juices in the tin collect, baste the vegetables every now and again.  This keeps the flavours in your vegetables.

If you want the rice on top of the tomatoes to crisp up, just take the lids off for a while in the oven.