Thursday, June 30, 2011

Risotto and A Marcella Hazan Recipe

Jeanne at Cooksister wrote a great post on risotto recently, covering all the important points of cooking one properly and featuring a version of a Jamie Oliver recipe, which started me off reminiscing on my own risotto journey.

Back in the mists of time when I was a student in Exeter, a group of us from the Italian department went out for a celebratory end of year meal at the local Italian restaurant. Having recently spent a year in Rome as part of the course, I fancied I’d learned more than just language there. My Italian boyfriend had broadened my education to include (besides a colourful variety of parolacci - Italian swear words!) the works of Caravaggio, Italian cinema and an appreciation of proper Italian food, none of which he cooked himself unfortunately, but in those days it was cheap enough to eat out quite often in the trattorias around Trastevere. I’d unsuspectingly been given fried brains to try (delicious!), had eaten spaghetti alla carbonara that would never be matched and all sorts of good plain Italian fare.

In that would-be Italian restaurant in Exeter the menu proudly offered risotto. Remembering some of the delicious creamy plates of risotto I’d enjoyed in Italy, I ordered it with anticipation, looking forward to a nostalgic culinary trip back to the previous year. I choked in disappointment when in front of me was placed a plate of boiled rice with several generous dollops of a tomato-based sauce piled in top. Sacrilege! How could a restaurant claiming to be Italian produce such a thing! Being shy and English I didn’t say a word, but tried to eat  it, though every mouthful of strident tomato mixed with bland rice was  a painful reminder of what I was missing.

That was the Eighties. Now practically every Modern English or Modern European restaurant in Britain can cook a half decent risotto. Jamie Oliver has made sure that we all know what to expect of a risotto and no Italian restaurant would dream of serving up such a cheat of a dish.

In a way that meal did me a favour. Not that much later I discovered the books of Marcella Hazan, the voice of authentic Italian cooking in the English speaking world, and taught myself how to cook risotto properly. I discovered that by following her recipes faithfully I could recreate the tastes of Italy quite easily, so was no longer dependant on anglicised Italian restaurants for my nostalgia trips. Recently I was very happy to discover that Marcella Hazan is still actively writing and championing good home-cooked Italian food on the Hazan family food blog An Educated Palate, and I am still just as much a fan of her recipes as ever, using my original three books every week for one or other of my favourite recipes.

For me the difference between Marcella’s recipes and, say, Jamie Oliver’s is that hers really do taste of Italy. His are good too, but they are creative rather than authentic and they just don’t take me back to any of the hundreds of trattorias and ristorantes that I enjoyed eating in during my years of working and travelling in Italy. Perhaps because a risotto in Italy is only one part of a meal, it can afford to be simple, showcasing just one clear flavour rather than trying to be a meal in itself and cramming in  several principal ingredients, as we are often tempted to do when we serve a risotto as a main course on these English-speaking shores!

The risotto recipe that I turn to again and again in Marcella Hazan’s The Second Classic Italian Cookbook is a very simple celery risotto. Surprisingly enough my girls love it (my son loves rice but hates risotto and chokes down his small obligatory portion smothered in baked beans...!). The celery flavour is clear and fresh and there are no distractions, resulting in a wonderful creamy comforting plate of velvet risotto with a little celery crunch and pale elegant colour. It should really stand as an introduction to second course where you could serve something a little more colourful and complex, but we are usually happy enough with this and maybe some salad for supper.

Risotto Col Sedano – Celery Risotto Recipe

1litre / 2 pints good home-made stock or bouillon
1 medium onion chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
60g / 2oz butter
200g / 7oz celery finely diced
1 tablespoon celery leaves chopped fine
300g / 10 ½ oz Italian Arborio rice
30g / 1 oz freshly grated parmesan
1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Heat the broth in one pan, so that is only just simmering.
In a heavy bottomed pan or casserole, put the chopped onion with all the oil and 30g of the butter. Sauté the onion over a medium heat until golden and translucent, but don’t let it catch, as the burnt flavour will spoil the whole risotto.
Add half the chopped celery and all the chopped leaves and continue to cook, stirring occasionally for 3 more minutes.
Add the rice and stir to coat thoroughly. Add a good ladleful of hot broth and stir continuously as the rice absorbs the broth. The heat should be medium. Too hot and the broth will evaporate too quickly before being absorbed and too low it will take forever to cook through. Keep adding more broth as the last lot is absorbed and stir continuously.
After 10 minutes of cooking, add the remaining celery. Continue cooking and stirring and adding broth until the rice is tender and creamy. This can take anything from 20-35 minutes depending on the type of rice you are using. You may need more liquid, in which case just use hot water.
Once the rice is tender to the bite, with no chalkiness left in the middle, it is done. Stir in the remaining butter and the grated parmesan. Check for salt. Turn off the heat and sprinkle over the parsley then serve the risotto promptly.

Also have a look at Jeanne's post for some good general tips on risotto making.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Mulled Wine Recipe

Jen asked for my mulled wine recipe, mentioned in passing in my winter festival post.
Spicy aromas of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg wafting from mugs of hot wine, hands clasped around mugs to warm them, cold winter air and warm fire: there is something about mulled wine / gluhwein / vin chaud that evokes the best part of winter, a comfort blanket for your taste buds. Certainly at our last winter festival it went down very well, the pot drained dry in no time, leaving me making a note to double the quantities next year.

It’s more of a method than a recipe. I do most of it to taste, so don’t have exact quantities for everything, but that’s half the fun of it: tasting a sip now and then as it brews, the spices getting headier with the warmth, adjusting the sugar quantities, so that the acid edge is softened but without it getting sickly sweet and cloying.

Choose a red wine that is drinkable for a start. This isn’t a way of disguising a disgusting plonk, but rather a way of adding to a good well bodied wine. Having said that there is no point using a fine wine of complex structure and subtle notes either. Strong wines aged in oak and full of tannin tend to  challenge the spices with too much of their own personality. So the best I’ve found is a simple but medium bodied claret, affordable but not dirt cheap. Here in South Africa I use the Drostdy-Hof Claret Select which now comes in boxes, making it affordable enough for our large gatherings.

4 litres red wine
2 oranges
20 - 30 whole cloves
3-4 sticks cinnamon
½ a nutmeg grated finely

Decant the wine into a large pot. Press the cloves into the skin of the oranges so they are studded on both sides. Cut the oranges in half and float them in the wine. Add the cinnamon sticks and grated nutmeg.

The sugar needs to be added to taste, so start with about a cup and taste again when that has warmed and dissolved. The idea is to take the sharpness from the edge of the wine, but not to get too sickly sweet. Always start with less sugar and add a bit more once the wine has warmed until you’ve got the right balance.

Warm the wine over a medium heat, stirring occasionally. Bring it to a point where it is steaming and a few small bubbles are breaking the surface. DON’T LET IT BOIL or all the alcohol will evaporate! Keep it gently steaming over a low heat for about an hour to draw out the flavour of the spices.

Taste the wine every now and again and add a little more sugar if necessary or a little more spice. The spice will mellow and develop as the wine mulls, so expect the flavour to improve and deepen over the time it is brewing.

I don’t add anything else. Some other recipes do add fruit juice and brandy, but I like the simplicity of this with just a little fruit note added by the oranges and the warm aroma of spices lifting the spirits. Ladle into mugs and sip steadily before it cools.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Winter Festival - Fire and Light and Pots of Food

Our midwinter celebration, a festival of fire and light, giving kids old and young a chance to play with sparklers, make lanterns, sit mesmerised around a bonfire cradling mugs of hot soup and mulled wine, watching sparks fly into the air to join the stars.

By some miracle,  year after year, we manage to have an evening that is clear and still, and this year too, the wind dropped on cue, the rain held off till after midnight, when everyone was already tucked up in bed and the bonfire burned in fine style.

As we sat in the circle, the kids with lanterns parked in front of them, others hanging theirs on the sticks to make a colorful dancing circle of light around us, we read our blessings and St Francis' prayer, the girls sang the St Johns song that they all know from Waldorf school and there was a wonderful peaceful quality in the air.

Then it was time for sparklers, hot chocoolate, mulled wine and lighting the bonfire.

I needed my biggest pots – we had 45 people, 20 of them children, who were on hot chocolate, but even so the mulled wine vanished in a flash from my big stockpot. All the mugs from all three houses were requisitioned and we ate soup from mugs, moving on to sausage and boerewors rolls as the stalwart braai team produced them.

I’m going to need to invest in more pots if we have this many people next year – the lentil soup went down so well that the poor old braai master (my husband) only got one, not full, mug and no seconds and the mulled wine also ran out before he got a chance for seconds of that too... proof that everyone enjoyed it of course!

So I’ve made notes for next year, but there’s no guarantee that I’ll find that piece of paper or even remember that I did make notes – so reminder to self: make more soup and more mulled wine next year! 

The rain poured down all night, putting out the fire very thoroughly and washing the colour from the crepe paper decorated lanterns.

When the sun came out in the afternoon the sandpit was washed clean of footprints and had taken on another form of beauty – the calm after the storm.

Thank you to all our friends for joining us and making this such a special occasion for all of us!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Aloo Gobi - The recipe

 “She helped me wash the net curtains and she made lovely aloo gobi last week. ...”

Ever since watching Bend It Like Beckham ( a movie we loved so much when we first got the DVD that we watched it ten times in a row), I’ve had a vague desire to learn to make aloo gobi myself. I didn’t actually know what it was, but it sounded so satisfying, especially when Jess’ mother pronounced it. But I was cooking for small kids at the time and the most adventurous we got was chicken korma.
A few weeks ago I was researching some Indian recipes for a client and the aloo gobi quote popped immediately into my mind. Once the articles were despatched, I was left with several mouth-watering recipes begging to be tried out. The lamb dopiaza recipe I’ve already written about, so now I have to share the aloo gobi recipe with you, which was a revelation to me.

Cauliflower has never been a favourite vegetable for anyone in the family, so I knew I was taking a risk serving it up, even combined with the potatoes, which my family love in most guises. But I got away with it! Maybe because the cauliflower florets were small, just a little bit cooked out of shape and the same colour as the potatoes when coated with spices, but the girls gobbled up the aloo gobi without a protest. (Our son of course never touched it in the first place, but then I knew that was too much to expect.) I thought I was home and dry. Unfortunately the next time I cooked it they cottoned on and separated out the cauliflower pieces; my dastardly plot foiled...!

Anyway we loved it, deep spice flavours adding intensity to the bland vegetables but still allowing the creamy nuttiness of fresh cauliflower to come through. The recipe I eventually found is authentically Indian and though I have most of the spices, I don’t  have asafoetida or mango powder. So I left them out and used a squeeze of lemon juice to add a touch of light acidity instead of the mango powder.

Lamb dopiaza and aloo gobi go really well together

Recipe for Aloo Gobi

2 cups cut cauliflower florets
2 medium potatoes
2 cm fresh ginger root shredded
3 teaspoons ground coriander
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons oil
3 tablespoons water
Pinch asafoetida (optional)
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 green chillies
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon mango powder (amchoor)
2 tablespoons chopped coriander leaves

Mix the shredded ginger, coriander powder, cayenne and turmeric together in a small bowl then add the 3 tablespoons water to make a paste.

Heat the oil in a pan. When it is hot enough, a cumin seed dropped in will crack immediately. Add the cumin seeds and asafoetida to the oil. As soon as the seeds crack add the green chillies and bay leaves and stir. Now add the spice paste and stir for one minute until the spices separate out from the oil.

Add the cauliflower and potatoes with salt and 2 tablespoons water. Stir them into the spice mix until they are well covered. Cover the pan and cook on a medium heat for about 15-20 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Stir carefully every 4 minutes or so to make sure it is not sticking to the pan.

Once the vegetables are tender, remove the pot from the heat and add the mango powder and chopped coriander. Stir it in and leave covered for a minute or two for the flavours to develop. Serve hot.

“Anyone can cook aloo gobi, - but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Winter on the Farm - Time for Marmalade Making

Soft swathes of mist drift over us, reaching around the hill behind us, bringing the vague memory of the sea with them, enveloping us in a cocooning blanket and muting the sounds of neighbours. The nearly full moon is dimmed, only a glow, and gradually all we hear is the steady drip, like rain in slow motion, of the misty dampness on our tin roof. Soft winter weather like this is a balm. We wake to a cool clear morning and, as we breakfast, a glow lights the line of the mountains that are our horizon. The children leave for school, I clear the detritus of breakfast and vacuum the accumulation of sand and dog hair from wooden floors until the sun creeps sluggishly into the sky. Then the day is awake, its beams reach in dazzlingly through the windows, dimming the lights which suddenly look feeble beside its glow.

It’s a time of new growth. Dusty dry ground turning green over night, studded with the vibrant yellow of little oxalis flowers, like jewels spread by a prodigal hand. The oranges, so impatiently awaited, are finally here in abundance. Huge bags for only R12. This weekend they were irresistibly cheap – I bought a bag and then my sister-in-law bought me one too, just in case I hadn’t got them. So I am flooded with them. Nothing for it but to give up an afternoon to making orange sorbet, stashing it away in the freezer for an easy dessert later in the season when oranges are no longer so plentiful.

My first batch of marmalade this year was a disaster. Two weeks ago I happily spent the time shredding peel: limes, grapefruit, lemons and oranges. It cooked away, scenting the house with citrus tang. Sugar added, it was slow to come to setting point. I divided my attention and went to help Youngest with her pony club project, researching the sport of carriage driving on the internet. She’s too young to be able to do this by herself, so ‘help’ really means a grumpy Mum, who would rather be doing something else, trying to find some resources that are simple enough for her to read and understand, and then giving up and writing most of it herself, while Youngest chooses the pictures.

In between mutterings I went and checked on the marmalade, which was nearly there but needed another five minutes. And we all know what happens when you let a computer take you away from the stove for five minutes... I was recalled to the kitchen 15 minutes later by the pervasive aroma of caramelised oranges, which, by the time it had wafted through to our office, was more than just a little hint of caramel. It took me a whole week to get the blackened pan clean. And the rest of the day to restore my sense of humour.

This weekend I took a deep breath and made another batch from my ever adaptable marmalade recipe, which can be three fruit or four fruit or even five fruit quite happily, according to whim. This time I stayed in the room with it. The marmalade is perfect.

Six golden glowing jars await their labels and I have plan to make another batch very soon, to fill the marmalade side of the shelf once more and get me though to the next orange season. Now I want to make some candied peel, which I love but have never tried to make myself.

The soft winter weather is about to be blasted into oblivion by a fine old Cape winter storm according to windguru  so I’m getting a final load of washing done while the sun shines and the breeze veers round to the north-west. Two days of rain will be enough to pile the laundry basket high again, so it needs to be emptied in readiness. And then it is our winter festival this weekend – midwinter, middle of the year already. How did that happen?

Monday, June 13, 2011


The girls have been seized by sticker mania. They used to collect stickers in a vague kind of way, happy when they came their way, carefully adding them to their sticker books, but never actually spending their own money on them. Their sticker books are home-made, from those pocket files, with colourful card slotted into the pages; the plastic surface is perfect for holding stickers so that they can be peeled off again later.

Now swapping stickers has become a social activity. Every time they go to their friends’ houses the sticker books come too. New terminology has entered their vocabulary: scratchies are the 3D stickers with rough surfaces; smoothies, the slightly padded stickers with a vinyl surface; softies are stickers with a velvety surface. The value of the sticker depends on what other people are prepared to swap for it.

They exclaim over the deals that have been struck:
“I can’t believe she would swap all those stickers for just one scratchy”.

Conditions are made on the swaps:
“You can only have this one if you don’t swap it with anybody else.” or
"The mummy and the foal have to stay together or they'll be lonely"

I was late catching on to all this. It was only when they were bemoaning the fact that their friends have access to so many more new stickers than them, that I realised their swapping power was severely compromised. One set of friends have adults all over the place looking out for stickers for them. They get sent them from family in Germany; an older girlfriend at school in a nearby town gets interesting ones that she swaps with them; doting adults in the village pick them up for them when they see them. Our family had been falling behind! We hadn’t realised the seriousness of the situation...

When you’ve had no new stickers for a while it’s harder to interest anyone in swapping with you. And the girls hardly ever come shopping with me any more nowadays, so how were they to get new ones to add to their collection? One day visiting Shoprite I did glance through the stickers on display, but realised that I had no idea which ones were desirable and which ones naff. Obviously horse stickers were top of the list but what else? I didn’t get any. I told them to ask their friends where they got their stickers from. “The Crazy Store’ came back the answer.

Luckily there is a branch of the Crazy Store in the town near their brother’s school and we headed there after a piano lesson, armed with purses bulging from the proceeds of their market stall. They sat in the aisle of the shop next to the sticker display, examining them carefully, calculating costs and deciding on the appeal of each set. Most of the scratchies left had cars and planes on, just one set of flowers and one set of insects... they decided to buy three sets of stickers to share, including the flower scratchies. Then Middle daughter bought a further two sets just for herself, snapping up the insect scratchies and spending at least half her money altogether. Of course this threatened the balance, as now she would have far more scratchies than Youngest.

So the car was filled with tense discussion and negotiations, verging on sulks, on the way home, as they worked out who would get what, and whether Youngest could buy into some of the extras. Middle Daughter held firm to her right to have spent money on more stickers and refused to let Youngest buy in, but did concede her the prettiest half of the flower stickers.

The mother of their other friends has got no time for this sticker craze, can’t believe how much time they waste on it... but I’m coming to realise that they are probably getting a thorough grounding in all the skills they need to be successful business women: brokering deals, putting values on commodities according to their desirability and so on. And all for the price of a few packs of stickers!