I always thought I had risotto down until I watched an episode of Australia’s Masterchef on TV the other day (yes, we have the Aussie show in the UK and it’s so much better than the British version – Apprentice challenges meets cooking stress – classic). A couple of weeks back, the budding final 10 contestants had flown half way around the world to the lavish panoply of gastronomic delights that is Italia. Across the week, the illusive risotto, previously termed “the masterchef death dish” (because so many contestants failed in their attempts to cook it), was cooked twice – and appropriately so, being as they were in the home of the famed rice-based dish. For the first, a saffron-yellow, creamy and simple risotto was topped by a single sheaf of edible gold leaf and frankly looked amazing (needless to say, most of the contestants failed in their attempts to recreate the dish). The second risotto was made in a master-class at the end of the week. Again, the recipe was for a simple risotto, which, instead of adding onions at the beginning, added them right at the end as a type of purée. I was inspired.
So last weekend, I decided that my tried and tested risotto method should be set aside for a new radical approach which was to be something of a combination of the two methods I saw on TV with a little of my own twist on top.
Up first was the stock. I used 900ml of ordinary chicken stock and added to this the dried old husks from a hunk of parmesan cheese which had been hanging around in my fridge. This lends a wonderfully rich parmesan undercurrent to the risotto without going overkill at the end. I also added some chunks of ham and a good pinch of saffron strands straight from my spanish travels. I allowed this stock to simmer gently while getting on with the other components.
My red onion purée
Up next, I chopped an onion (it should be a white one – I only had red, which tends to redden the saffron yellow colour of the risotto when stirred in at the end, but it’s not a big deal). I sweated my onion, covered, over a low heat in plenty of butter (a good 50g worth) and seasoning. I left the onion to sweat for a good 20 minutes, before adding it to a food processor, along with another knob of butter and making a creamy puree. This I then placed in the fridge to firm up a bit for use later.
Next, while the onions were sweating, I turned to my espresso reduction – This creates a wonderful deep, almost bitter-sweet contrast to the richness of the risotto’s parmesan flavour, and looks amazing when painted onto the plate. For the reduction, I made two double espressos in my coffee machine, and adding a single sachet of sugar (about a dessert spoon) and the coffee to a pan, I started simmering the coffee fairly rapidly, stirring often, until it started to reduce. Be careful this doesn’t burn or the espresso will become too bitter. Once thickened and syrupy, I set aside (keeping warm).
Before moving onto the risotto, I chopped around half a butternut squash, seasoned, drizzled with oil and placed in the oven at 200 degrees Celsius.
OK, onto the risotto. So in a pan went 200g of arborio rice, which I toasted lightly in a few knobs of melted butter for a minute or so. Then, straight to the rice (no wine added in this recipe) I went with my first ladle-full of stock, stirring appropriately. On masterchef, George, the presenter, suggested that one should “aggravate” rather than stir the risotto – personally, in my pans, it’s stir or stick, so I ignored his approach, but feel free to shake the rice around a lot rather than stir if you have a really effective non-stick pan. Taking the dish one ladle-full at a time, the rice started to become thicker and yellower and overall more delicious.
As the risotto neared its completion, I fried up a good handful of sliced mushrooms (you can use any variety, the prettier the better) in some butter and oil, along with some chopped sage, a crushed garlic clove, seasoning and some chopped parma ham (pancetta would also work well). These create some amazing autumn flavours and a textural variation to the risotto. Before the autumn ingredients were done, and once the stock was used up, I left my risotto to rest for 4-5 mins with the lid on (the risotto, once cooked, should be creamy and yet loose, with the rice tender, but still with some bite).
So, pulling everything together, I first painted my plates with the espresso reduction. I then stirred my onion puree into the risotto – so creamy and amazing it made me salivate instantly. I then spooned the risotto onto my plates, and carefully piled some of the butternut squash and mushroom mix onto it. I then crowned my dish with a few fragments of edible gold leaf in homage to the incredible creation I saw made on TV.
And there you have it. The new radical approach to cooking risotto worked. No wine, no parmesan at the end, but with an onion puree and a very original coffee puree on the side. So different from my previous method, but so, so good.