Variations on a (rice) theme

Snowdrops

Spring may have seemed just round the corner today, but it’s still that time of year when comfort food is the order of the day. Snow or icy rain stopped play in the allotment yet again at the weekend, and although the snowdrops are brazening it out, and the scent of the daphnes pervades the garden when the sun deigns to shine, there’s very little evidence of spring growth yet.

Still far too tempting to hunker down inside and turn to comfort food like risottos and stews…. For me, rice dishes are just what you fancy after a cold winter’s walk or an afternoon beavering away on the keyboard. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with various examples of the genre and thought I’d note down my favourites, if only so I too can find them again and remember the little tweaks I’ve made!

My first revelation was Tom Kerridge’s beef risotto, as featured on the current BBC Food & Drink programme – a very good watch if you haven’t seen it. I’d never thought of making a risotto with beef, but this sounded so good, I just had to try it. The original recipe calls for beef shin on the bone, but my local farm shop only had boneless pieces when I called in, so gave me a piece of small marrowbone to cook with it. As I paid, I joked that the dogs would be mortified not to have any bones for themselves – so she duly presented me with the rest of the bone – two huge pieces! One was so enormous that I decided to cook it up for stock (which I subsequently used in the risotto instead of Tom’s recommended chicken stock), but the dogs have really enjoyed gnawing on the rest.

Here’s the recipe, duly tweaked as above:

Beef Risotto – serves 2

Beef risotto

8oz beef shin (on the bone) or with a separate piece of marrowbone)

½ pt red wine

Seasoning

1 carrot

1 celery stick

2 small onions, chopped

1 star anise

1 bay leaf

Good pint home-made beef stock (see link above – or you can use chicken!)

Olive oil

1oz butter

1 garlic clove

6oz risotto rice

Fresh thyme leaves

Cheese to serve (I used Fontina, but Tom’s original recipe used blue cheese)

Marinade the beef overnight in the wine and seasoning. Remove from marinade, reserving the wine. Brown the beef in a splash of olive oil, then remove from pan, brown half the onion, chopped carrot and celery until softened, add the star anise and bay leaf. Season and add the small piece of marrowbone (if using), reserved red wine and 1 pt beef stock, bring back to the boil and cook in a low oven (150°C, Gas 3), covered, for 3.5 – 4 hours. Add more stock if necessary (depends on the heat of your oven!).

Remove meat from casserole and chop/flake – it will probably fall apart by this stage! Extract the marrow from the bone and leave to one side to add later. Strain the stock through a sieve and keep to one side.

 Heat another splash of oil and the butter in a pan, add the remaining chopped onion and garlic and cook gently until soft. Add risotto rice and stir for a couple of minutes until well coated with the buttery juices. Add beef stock a ladleful at a time and stir as you go until absorbed, then add more as with a normal risotto. Continue until the rice is just tender – I usually reckon between 30-40 minutes for this stage.

Stir in the flaked meat, chopped marrowbone, thyme and finally the cheese of your choice, preferably one which will melt beautifully.

 Serve and enjoy the delicious, unctuous taste of comfort food at its best…..

A few days after luxuriating in my warming beef risotto, I decided to try another variation on the rice theme, this time very loosely based on a rice salad on the January page of this year’s Sainsbury magazine. It was intended to be a take on Coronation chicken, but using leftover turkey. I had neither cooked turkey nor chicken, but I did have a fresh chicken breast AND a ripe mango in my fruit bowl, so I decided to adapt! I wasn’t in the mood for salad (far too cold!), so I cooked brown rice and served the whole dish warm – a sort of Coronation chicken/biryani fusion…. See what you think:

Chicken and Mango Rice (serves 2)

Chicken & mango rice

6oz brown basmati rice

½ tsp turmeric

1 onion

1 garlic clove, chopped

1 yellow pepper (optional)

1 tbsp olive or sunflower oil

1 red chilli, finely chopped

1 tsp each garam masala, coriander, cumin

Salt and pepper

1 tsp freshly grated ginger (I use straight from the freezer)

1 ripe mango

2 chicken breasts

1oz flaked almonds, toasted under a grill (or in a hot oven for 4-5 mins)

2 tbsp sultanas

Handful fresh coriander, chopped

 Cook the brown basmati with 1 tsp turmeric in boiling water as usual for 25-30 minutes, then leave to one side.

 Cook the chopped onion, garlic, chilli and pepper in the oil, then add the spices, ginger and seasoning and continue cooking for another 10 minutes or so. Add the chicken, cut into thin strips and cook until tender and cooked through. Add the toasted almonds and sultanas and stir in the cooked brown rice until heated through. Finally add the chopped mango (diced using the hedgehog method of cutting each half lengthwise from the flat stone, scoring the flesh in a criss-cross pattern without piercing the skin, then turning each piece inside-out and cutting away from the skin) and fresh coriander and stir gently to mix.

Serve with mango chutney and Naan bread.

My final variation on the theme isn’t actually a rice dish at all, but it feels very much like one and certainly has the same supremely comforting effect. It’s a speltotto, borrowed from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg Every Day cookbook. It’s based on two of my staple allotment veg, kale and leek, that I always have even in the depths of winter and the tricky days of March when there’s not much else available on the plot. I’ve adapted it ever so slightly, but otherwise it’s more or less the original recipe – and wonderful with it! Kale is very much a superfood at the moment, popular with celebrities and nutritionists alike as a source of nutrient-rich goodness. The first time I made this, I made the mistake of using wholegrain spelt, the only spelt I could find at the time in my excellent local wholefood shop, Wealden Wholefoods. Unfortunately the whole grains took hours to cook, and although the recipe was still delicious, it ended up being rather later than I’d planned to eat…. Pearled spelt is the way to go: I tracked it down in Waitrose in the end, but I should think it’s more widely available now.

Kale and Leek Speltotto (serves 4)

Kale and leek speltotto

1 litre home-made vegetable stock (or chicken if you’re not cooking for vegetarians!)

50g butter

2 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Few sprigs fresh thyme

2-3 leeks, well washed and chopped

150g kale (I use the beautiful dark green Nero di Toscana)

300g pearled spelt

125ml dry white wine

50g cheese (Hugh uses goat’s cheese, but I’ve used whatever I had at hand: Taleggio is superb, as is Fontina, and I can imagine blue cheese being good too…)

Salt and pepper

 Cook the onion, garlic and thyme leaves gently in the oil and butter for about 10 minutes until soft. Stir in the leeks, followed a few minutes later by the pearled spelt and stir until coated in butter. Add the wine and bubble until all the liquid has been absorbed. Now add the stock little by little as you would with a risotto, testing after 30 minutes or so to see when the spelt is tender. Meanwhile, strip the dark green kale leaves from the tough stems and shred finely, disposing of the stems. When you think the spelt is almost ready, stir in the kale leaves and cook for another few minutes until they wilt and are just cooked. Season to taste and stir in your chosen cheese. Mmmmm…

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The Great Garden Tidy-Up

Despite the bitter wind and icy temperatures, I ventured out in the garden on Saturday afternoon to do battle with my perennial borders. The chilly Northern winds of the past week had wreaked havoc with my overwintering grasses: a statuesque Miscanthus zebrinus, burnished Miscanthus Sioux, the smaller, but no less fabulous Miscanthus yakushima and a stately Calamagrostis Karl Foerster. I love the way they stand tall through the worst of the winter weather and shimmer enticingly in the frost and snow (when we get any!), but just lately I’ve noticed the dry stems have been torn asunder by the wind and are blowing round the garden. It’s also the ideal time to cut them back while it’s still so cold, before the new shoots start to form for this year’s growth.

Helen Yemm, garden columnist for the Daily Telegraph and local gardening guru (a plotholder at our local allotments no less!), recommends tying up the grass before you start, to stop the stems blowing around as you work, but I find it easy enough to take handfuls at a time and snip about 6-9” from the base with my secateurs. I suppose with larger clumps and the tying-up method, you could go in with shears, or even a hedge-trimmer, but for my small garden, even with established clumps (the Miscanthus in particular are easily 2-3’ in diameter!), I find the secateurs method quite manageable. The trick then is getting the wheelbarrow to the compost pile before the wind blows it all around the garden (or Poppy the dog buries her ball at the bottom of the barrow, then uproots the lot looking for it….).

A bit of weeding underneath (the dreaded woodrush (Luzula) that’s taken up residence in my mixed hedge (and is impossible to get rid of!) and the equally annoying Geum urbanum) and I felt I’d done a good couple of hours’ work! Certainly too cold to stay outside for much longer…

Autumn colours

The grasses  in their autumn glory…

Garden trimmed in Feb… and duly shorn in their winter guise

Definitely the kind of day for a bowl of homemade soup when you come back indoors, and one of my favourites is Carrot and Coriander, again originally based on my much-loved Covent Garden Soup recipe book, but adapted over the years. Not my own carrots, unfortunately – my heavy clay soil isn’t ideal for carrots, especially the main crop. I can usually manage summer pickings, enough for salads and steamed veg, but the slugs and carrot root fly (despite the fleece protection) go to town if I leave them in the ground too long.

 Carrot and Coriander Soup

1oz butter

2 medium onions, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

1lb carrots, diced

1 tspn crushed coriander seeds

1 ¾ pts homemade chicken (or vegetable) stock

Freshly grated nutmeg

¼ pt milk (or single cream) – optional

1 tbspn fresh coriander, chopped

Salt and pepper

Crème fraîche and more fresh coriander to garnish

Melt the butter and gently cook onions, garlic and celery until soft – about 10 minutes. Meanwhile chop the carrots, then add with the crushed coriander seeds and cook for a further 5-10 minutes. Add the stock, nutmeg and seasoning, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 20-30 mins or until the vegetables are tender. Leave to cool, then whizz in a blender until smooth. Return to a clean pan, stir in the chopped coriander (don’t add before you blend, or your beautiful orange soup will turn a murky brown colour…) and add milk (or cream if feeling luxurious!) depending on the consistency of the soup. I don’t like this soup too thin, but much depends on personal preference.

Garnish with more coriander and a swirl of crème fraîche if you’re feeling posh! Otherwise enjoy as it is, served with fresh bread or sourdough toast.

This should make enough for 6 generous helpings – and it freezes beautifully, of course.

Working lunch

The perfect working lunch…

P.S. Today, by contrast, has been a crisp and sunny winter’s day, much better for the soul! I was able to get on with some digging down at the allotment to make a new bed and transfer in one of my old gooseberry plants (Pax – a deep red dessert variety that is spine-free and mildew-resistant, also very late, so the perfect follow-on plant to my stalwart Invictas). I’m nearly at the stage where I can wave goodbye to the top end of my plot and concentrate on the raised beds and orchard – just the last of the rhubarb to move now, as soon as it starts to show…

Hellebore Party Frock close-up

My favourite hellebore ‘Party Frock’ – a real harbinger of spring today

Winter weekends in front of the fire

January and February are invariably the bleakest months of the year, with little doing on the gardening front and little inclination to brave the elements apart from the twice-daily dog walks. Far nicer to stay inside and gather together with family and friends in front of a blazing log fire! Fortunately it’s a busy few weeks for birthdays in my family, so plenty of excuses to get together and enjoy good food and convivial company.

Poppy in front of fire

A few weeks ago it was my elder son’s birthday and 14 of us gathered for a delicious lunch in an Indian restaurant at the foot of the castle (Mango Lounge – well worth a visit!), rounded off by a brisk walk in the wintery sunshine of Windsor Great Park to the raucous sound of parakeets. By the time we returned we’d worked up enough of an appetite for birthday cake and my contribution to the feast (as instructed in case the cake didn’t go round!) – chocolate amaretti bars. My son’s girlfriend is increasingly wheat-intolerant; she’s found that she feels so much better if she omits wheat from her diet and has progressed from just cutting down on bread and cake to abandoning it completely. She made the delicious birthday cake, a gooey and scrumptious chocolate mousse cake based on ground almonds, so my challenge was to produce another wheat-free treat.

Adapted from a Mary Berry recipe, the Chocolate and Amaretti Bars are wheat-free and deliciously rich, yet light at the same time, the perfect accompaniment to afternoon tea. I love amaretti crumbled into a mixture of whipped cream, natural yogurt and lemon cheese for an ultra-quick and delicious pudding, or squished in the base of a sundae dish as a speedy base for a trifle, or crushed with melted butter and brown sugar as a substitute for a fruit crumble (plums and blackberries being a particularly yummy combination). Here is Mary’s recipe, adapted ever so slightly to the contents of my store cupboard:

Chocolate and Amaretti Bars

4oz butter

2oz flaked almonds (or whole almonds chopped, if you prefer)

2oz pine nuts

3 tbsp golden syrup

7oz dark chocolate, chopped (I use Waitrose Belgian dark)

2 tsp cocoa powder

4oz dried apricots, chopped

1 bag (8oz) amaretti biscuits (I like Doria)

2 tbsp Amaretto liqueur (optional)

Line a deep rectangular cake tin with foil and grease lightly – my favourite one for tray bakes is 7” x 11” x 1”, but use the nearest you have. Put the almonds and pine nuts on an enamel plate in a hot oven (180°C, Gas 4) for 5 minutes or so until golden – watch like a hawk as they catch extremely quickly!). You could dry-fry them in a frying pan or toast them under the grill, but I find the oven method easiest and most reliable for an even golden colour. Put the butter, syrup and half the chocolate in a large bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water and allow to melt, stirring gently every so often. (Add 2 tbsp Amaretto liqueur if using – see below!) Remove from the heat, stir in the sieved cocoa, apricots and nuts, then coarsely crumble in the amaretti biscuits. Stir to mix evenly, then transfer to the prepared tin and level the surface with a spatula. Chill in the fridge overnight. The next day, melt the remaining chocolate (either over a pan of water as before, or I find it as easy to do this in the microwave, for 1-minute bursts, stirring after each session – it shouldn’t take more than 2-3 minutes in all, but don’t forget to stir otherwise it can burn in the centre!). Spread thinly over the top of the cake and leave until set. Cut into 18 bars with a sharp knife and serve – hopefully to general acclaim!

Next time I made these, I added 2 tablespoons of Amaretto liqueur to the chocolate mix after melting, before adding the rest of the ingredients, to make this even more almondy – even better! You can leave it out if you don’t want the alcohol hit, but it works really well. Good as an after-dinner treat, cut into daintier bars…

Amaretti bars