Saturday, 24 September 2011

A chicken risotto

I've had one of those weeks where I've done very little cooking - there were a couple of evenings spent in the pub that saw me raiding the fridge for snacks at 11pm after drinking beer on an empty stomach. Then I got ill - too ill to cook - and ended up ordering Chinese takeaway to be delivered one night. And yesterday I just felt too lazy - the curse of the lone cook - and ate a pastrami sandwich and a slab of halloumi while parked on the sofa watching Nigel Slater doing infinitely more interesting things with food than I was.

Foodwise, from a health point of view it was not a great week - I didn't eat nearly enough fruit and veg, despite my best intentions. And drinking generally leads to cravings for fat and salt when the hunger pangs kick in, which is why I was picking at cold cuts and cheese before bedtime.

But before my chaotic week got properly underway, I did actually do some real cooking. I still had some leftover chicken in the fridge from the roast of a few days previously, plus a lovely bowlful of homemade chicken stock that had set to a deep golden, thick jelly. There was only thing on my mind - risotto.

Risotto is one of my favourite comfort foods - it's fairly easy to make although it does require attention (I find the stirring very relaxing as there's a lovely rhythm to it), and it's also a very good way of using up leftovers. This chicken risotto is one I invariably make after roasting a chicken. It's not dissimilar to the classic Venetian risi e bisi, although I don't like my rice quite as sloppy. I've been cooking this so long (decades), I have no idea where my recipe came from originally - most likely, my usual habit of seeing what food I had in the house and slinging it together. The quantities given make one very generous bowlful.

What you need: 
A handful of cooked chicken, torn into strips or chunks
A small onion, finely chopped
About 1/2 litre/1 pint of chicken stock
A glass of white wine or vermouth (optional)
Half a punnet of chestnut mushrooms, halved then sliced
Half a mugful of risotto rice
Half a mugful of defrosted frozen peas
A lump of parmesan cheese, grated
A few chopped sprigs of parsley

What to do:
An hour before you start, take the stock out of the fridge, skim any fat off it and let it come to room temperature to soften the jelly. Heat a little olive oil over a low heat in a heavy based sauteuse and gently fry the onion until it is translucent. Turn up the heat and tip in the rice, stirring it through with a wooden spoon until every grain is coated in the oil and it's "fried" a little. If you're using the wine, now is the time to add it to the pan - it will sizzle alarmingly and create a lot of steam. Stir it furiously with the wooden spoon. No wine? Use a ladleful of the stock.

Turn the heat down to moderate, keep the pan on simmer and keep stirring until all the wine or stock has been absorbed. Then keep adding the stock, a ladleful at a time. And keep stirring - the process helps release the starches from the rice grains to produce that lovely creamy texture. The whole process should take around 20-25 minutes.

About halfway through, add the mushrooms. Don't be scared by how much space they take up in the pan - they will shrink right down as they cook. Five minutes later, add the peas and the chicken. Cook for another five minutes or so, until all the stock has been absorbed and the rice is thickly creamy. Turn off the heat, stir in the grated Parmesan and serve, with the chopped parsley as a garnish.

Cook's tips:
Purists insist the stock should be hot before adding it but I rarely bother to tip it into a saucepan and bring it to the boil. As long as the heat under the sauteuse is just high enough to keep the risotto on simmer, it'll still work just fine. It's important to take the stock out of the fridge though - you do not want to be adding really cold stock to the pan otherwise the temperature of the risotto will fluctuate too much during the cooking. I usually boil a kettle before I start cooking in case I don't have enough stock and also because sometimes the rice may be more absorbent than others.

The rice - it's really important to have the right kind of rice, starchy and capable of absorbing a lot of liquid. The three main Italian risotto rices are Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone and you can find at least the first two varieties in the supermarkets. Using basmati or American long grain just won't work. Spanish paella rice makes a good substitute if you can't find risotto rice.

The cheese - like the rice, the right kind of cheese is essential. Parmesan is the ideal and easy to find in supermarkets. Do not use those nasty drums of grated Parmesan dust though - the contents both smell and taste like vomit, not the effect you want to achieve. Good substitutes for Parmesan are Grana Padano, which comes from the same region but is a cheaper generic version, much like cheddars, but otherwise almost (not quite!) indistinguishable, or Pecorino, which is made in Sardinia from sheep's milk but has a similar texture.

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