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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