Saturday 19 July 2008

Basil Risotto

It is high summer in Tuscany. The air is hot and still, and although we don’t yet have the washed out feel of August, already you can sense that people are trying to move around in the heat as little as possible. Town is quiet, right through until the sun goes down early in the evening, when all around there are the sounds of the place slowly coming to life once more…voices calling from balconies, the occasional noise from a passing Vespa, and the sound of RAI Uno on somebody’s distant TV…The perfect backdrop to a glass of chilled prosecco and a handful of roast hazelnuts, sitting beside the lily pond, and watching as the last rays of the sun catch the façade of the Palazzo Ruschi, just visible over the top of the garden wall.

At this time of year, the pots of Basil on the terrace are enormous, and in need of almost daily haircuts to keep them in order. A perfect time for this recipe, which calls for a generous cup or so of fresh Basil just before the final mantecare

For four.

Ingredients: 2oz Butter; 1 small Onion, peeled and chopped small; .one and a third cups of Carnaroli Rice; 2 pints of good Chicken Stock; 2 cups of fresh Basil leaves; 1 cup of grated Parmesan; Seasoning.


1. Heat the stock over medium heat, and add half a dozen Basil leaves to it; let steep for fifteen minutes or so, then remove the leaves.

2. Melt all but half an ounce of the Butter in a sauté pan and cook the chopped Onion over medium heat for five minutes or so until it is soft and translucent.

3. Add the Rice; stir to coat it thoroughly with melted Butter, and cook it over medium heat for a minute or so, then start to add the Stock, a ladleful at a time. Follow the general steps given in Risotto Techniques as you continue to add more Stock as each ladleful is absorbed by the Rice.

4. After twenty minutes or so, start to test the Rice for done-ness. It should certainly be ready by the time thirty minutes has gone by. As soon as you judge the Rice is about ready, quickly chop the remaining Basil leaves finely, then add them along with the grated Parmesan to the risotto and stir well.

5. Off the heat, add the remaining Butter and stir it in as it melts in the heat from the Rice. Add Salt and Pepper to taste, and serve.

Sunday 13 July 2008

Leftover Lamb....

This is a dish which is good enough to merit cooking the lamb anyway, even if you don't have any left over from a previous dinner. If you do have leftovers, though (or have planned ahead and made sure to cook more than you needed first time round) then with very little effort it is possible to produce a result which is surprisingly sophisticated, elegant and seriously delicious. I first came across this in a little country restaurant several miles outside Carcassonne in the middle of winter, about fifteen years ago, when we were taking the four-footed of the day to visit Barcelona. On that occasion the recipe gloried in the name 'Célestine d'Agneau', and I committed it to memory to re-create subsequently at home: flavour-filled packages of meat and tiny diced vegetables, neatly bundled inside a crêpe, served with a rich and delicious sauce. I've never come across it anywhere else, or really anything very close to it- although at a stretch I suppose you could think of italian agnolotti as a kind of first cousin...As with so many dishes, the success lies in the density of the flavours, and here it is important to retain as much as you can of the cooking juices from when the lamb was originally roast to use as a sauce just before serving.

Following a no-show at a dinner party earlier this week, I had a roast lamb shank left over, and this was the result for supper a couple of days later. Ten minutes to make the crêpes; the same amount of time to prep the mirepoix , and then elapsed time while it cooked down, when I could concentrate on other things. It's very quick and easy....

For two.

Ingredients: 1 lamb shank, roast, with its cooking juices; Crêpe batter made from 1 egg, 4 fl oz milk, 1.5 oz plain flour, and a pinch of Salt; 1 Leek; 2 medium Carrots, peeled; 2 Portobello Mushroom caps; 1 oz Butter (or Duck Fat, if you have it); 1/4 cup White Wine; Seasoning.

1. Set the oven to 180 degrees C.

2. Blend all the batter ingredients together, and make 4 x 9" crêpes (I never bother to let the batter rest, I don't see the point; this amount of batter will make more crèpes than you need, but it's difficult to reduce the quantities any further - I always refrigerate or freeze the surplus crêpes for future use). Cover them with clingilm once done, to prevent them from becoming leathery as they sit.

3. Melt the Butter or Fat in a large frying pan. Dice the Leek, Carrots and Mushrooms very finely to make a mirepoix, and sauté for about ten minutes or so. Once the vegetables have all satisfactorily collapsed, add the wine, raise the heat and reduce the liquid to nothing. Taste, and correct the seasoning.

4. Carefully scrape all of the lamb jellified cooking juices into a small pan, and then remove all of the meat from the shank and cut into approximately 1 cm pieces. Give the bone to the dog.

5. On a greased baking tray, put two metal serving rings, also greased - I use some which are about 2" tall, which are perfect for this. If you don't have appropriate rings, then large ramekins, greased, would probably work pretty well, too.
Into each ring, lay a crêpe so that it lines the ring and hangs over the sides, making it easy to fill it. In the base of each crêpe put a generous spoonful of mirepoix, followed by half of the diced lamb, then finish with the rest of the mirepoix. Fold the edges of the crêpe in and over the filling, to make a neat parcel.

6. Over the top of each Célestine put a square of aluminium foil, to stop it from drying out, and then put them into the pre-heated oven for about twenty minutes. Meanwhile, heat the reserved sauce in the small pan.

To serve, remove the foil and carefully invert the Célestines onto heated serving plates, and spoon the heated sauce over the top.