December comforts

Crown Prince open

It may be cold out there and there’s certainly not much doing in the garden or down at the allotment, but it’s a lovely excuse to turn to good old proper comfort food to warm you from the inside out. I love old-fashioned hotpots and casseroles to warm the cockles of your heart, but rice dishes often fit the bill too. Last night, after a brief foray to the plot to finally cut down my frosted dahlia stems and harvest calabrese side shoots, parsley, rocket and the ubiquitous (and no less welcome!) leeks, I turned to an old favourite, baked leek and butternut squash risotto. To me, this is the epitome of comfort eating – oven-baked, creamy and with a delicious combination of fresh seasonal vegetables, white wine, stock and the unctuous addition of Parmesan cheese. Perfection.

Another rice dish that I’ve been meaning to jot down here is equally warming and just as acceptable on a cold winter’s day. I always make it after I’ve cooked a gammon joint, as it’s best made with the lovely chunky stock. I should perhaps apologise to purists of Italian food before I proceed any further, as this bears minimal resemblance to a true risotto, but bear with me – it’s still extremely good.

The original idea for my ham & vegetable risotto came from an ancient cookery book of my ex-husband’s. I suspect he may even have had it at university in the late 1970s/early 80s, and I think it was by Marguerite Patten – but as I no longer have it, I can’t be sure! In any event, I no longer use a recipe, just throw together what I have to hand, but good stock, good chunky ham (cut from a gammon joint, not the sliced, processed stuff) and plenty of vegetables are a must.

I usually cook my gammon joint in my slow cooker by soaking overnight (if necessary – some are saltier than others. I find Sainsbury’s joints need a lot of soaking, whereas with Waitrose joints you can get away without). You can make this recipe with good vegetable (or chicken) stock but you won’t have the richness of using the real thing. I’ll share my gammon recipe here too, though again it’s barely a recipe as such. It makes for a lovely moist ham and plenty of that delicious stock – with the added bonus that you can put it in the slow cooker in the morning and go out for the rest of the day knowing your main meal is done. I usually make the risotto with the leftover ham and stock over the next few days – using up leftover food is always extremely satisfying and especially so in this case. (See Waste Not, Want Not for more ideas for using up leftovers.)

Slow-cooked Gammon Joint

1 gammon joint (size depends how many you’re feeding!)
1 tbsp oil
1 onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
Apple juice or cider, 500 ml
Generous tbsp fresh sage, finely chopped
Black pepper

Soak the gammon joint in a large pan of cold water overnight if necessary (if you’re not sure, always best to soak!). Bring the gammon joint to the boil in a pan of fresh water, drain, pat dry with kitchen towel, then brown in a glug of oil a frying pan and transfer to the slow cooker. Add chopped onion, celery and apple to the frying pan and brown slightly, then stir in chopped fresh sage and black pepper (no salt as the ham may still be salty). When starting to soften and turn golden brown, add the apple juice or cider (you can even use white wine if that’s what you have!) and bring to the boil. Then pour over the gammon in the slow cooker, cover and cook on Low for at least 8 hours. Remove the gammon from the cooking juices 20 minutes before serving, and save the stock for the risotto. You can add the cooking water from any vegetables you may have cooked to accompany the gammon to the stock too.

Ham & Vegetable Risotto – serves 2-3

Ham risotto

Ham stock (I leave the cooked onion, apple and celery in as these add to the overall dish) – about 500 ml
Chopped ham (as little or as much as you have! – I’d use a handful for 2-3)
1 onion, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 leek, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and grated
125g risotto rice (I use Arborio)
250g fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped (or 1/2 thin chopped tomatoes)
50g frozen peas
125g Cheddar cheese, grated
Fresh parsley, chopped
Black pepper

Begin by gently frying the onion and red pepper until softened and golden brown. Add the leek and cook for a few minutes, then stir in the risotto rice and the grated carrot. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and stir constantly until the liquid has evaporated off, then start adding the stock, stirring all the time, adding the next ladleful as the previous one gets absorbed. It’s impossible to say how much you’ll need, but you can always top up with water if you finish the stock before the rice is ready. I would expect the stirring process to take at least 20 minutes, but keep checking the rice until it reaches the right consistency for you – just tender, in my case. Add the frozen peas and shredded ham about halfway through. You should end up with a lovely creamy risotto mixture. At this stage, stir in the Cheddar cheese (I did say it wasn’t authentic, but the Cheddar goes beautifully with the ham and the earthiness of the carrots! You an use Parmesan if you prefer…). Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and serve in generous bowlfuls. This isn’t the prettiest dish, but the taste more than makes up for it 🙂

If, by any chance, you’ve still got stock left over – say if you’ve added lots of vegetable cooking water – another winter-warming way of using it up (assuming it’s not too salty of course), is to turn it into ham and lentil soup. This was inspired originally by one of my favourite soup cookbooks, from the Covent Garden Soup Company (where it appears as Mrs Kendall’s Lentil Soup), but I’ve added to it over the years, use a completely different method and just throw in what I have available! It’s very forgiving and oh so tasty, nonetheless. I don’t actually add ham pieces to the soup, but it does taste very hammy with all that stock, hence the title – you wouldn’t want to forget and serve it to vegetarians by mistake…

Ham & Lentil Soup – serves 6-8

1.5 litres ham stock
(or use whatever ham stock you have left and add vegetable cooking water/stock)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2-3 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
125g red lentils
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 bay leaf
Few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
Black pepper
Fresh parsley to serve

Heat the oil and gently fry the chopped onions, carrots, celery and garlic until starting to soften and turn golden-brown. Stir in the diced potato and cook for another few minutes. Stir in the red lentils, tomato purée, thyme leaves and bay leaf, then add the stock (you can leave in the vegetable chunks if you’re using the stock from the gammon joint). Bring to the boil and cook for 30-40 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Turn off the heat and leave to cool for 15 minutes or so, then remove the bay leaf and blend in a liquidizer in batches (or use a stick blender if you don’t mind a more chunky texture). Return to the pan to reheat and serve with finely chopped fresh parsley. If the consistency is too thick at this stage, you can always add milk (or water) to adjust. Enjoy!

Quizzical Leo II

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2 thoughts on “December comforts”

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