Spring risotto with pancetta

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The colours and smells of spring

It has finally started to feel like spring in London – the sun is warm, the temperature is starting to climb, the central heating is off and the windows are open.

Risotto has long been one of my favourite dishes as it ticks a number of culinary boxes for me – it’s a one pot meal, you can use varied ingredients, different colours, it is luxurious and warming – I could go on. Bottom line is this is simple cooking, which if done right and with a little patience, gives us beautiful food.

A work colleague told me that he could never cook risotto as it is too difficult to make at home so he only ate it in restaurants. I told him all he needed was a pot, a little time and a little love for the rice.

Risotto is a combination of a starchy rice, good vegetables, good stock and a little good wine. Everything else is an added extra. A bit like spaghetti carbonara, there is no cream; the creamy texture is purely the starch being gently released from the rice through stirring and emulsifying with the stock, then butter and Parmesan enhance the luxurious and smooth texture.

The rice used for risotto should be a short grain variety. The most common found in the UK supermarkets are Carnaroli or Arborio, but there are many others. Don’t buy easy cook risottos – they are not worth the effort. Risotto rice tends to be more expensive than other rice on the shelves. This is because the rice is grown in Italy and is carefully looked after. When harvested, great care is taken to avoid damage to the rice and grains are selected for quality – you should not find any broken grains in the packet. When we buy risotto rice we are buying a carefully crafted product created by artisan farmers – it is in my opinion worth every penny.

When we create a risotto we need to be firm but gentle with the ingredients. The first step is to sweat the aromatic vegetables (onions, celery, carrots, fennel etc). Then we add the rice, then alcohol, then stock. The idea is that the rice will absorb all the liquid as it cooks and it will release the starch as it is gently stirred. In addition to the liquid, the rice will absorb any other flavour we add – herbs, spices, vegetables, butter – every ingredient will enhance and contribute to the final flavour.

In this recipe we are trying to promote the the colours and flavours of spring. Spring vegetables cook fast and should taste sweet (think peas, broad beans, asparagus, spring onions, baby leeks) so this dish is all about adding most of our greens towards the end of cooking.

Our food waste – asparagus shavings and ends

In this world of food wastage, finding a use for perfectly edible peelings and off-cuts is really important and helps to reduce household bills to boot. So do buy and cook asparagus spears but plan ahead and make this risotto (or something similar) the same week. The peel from the stalks and the woody ends are both used – the woody ends are used early on to cook them so they are tender and extract all the flavour, the peel at the end of cooking to give colour, texture, flavour and body to the final dish.

While the veg gives us fresh flavour and colour, the stock and the fat give the risotto depth of flavour and character. So buy the best stock you can (or if you have time make your own). I tend to use the Heston branded stuff from Waitrose.

In terms of fat, we’re using pancetta. The pork fat gives a good base flavour to the dish and, if you want to, use smoked pancetta for a further flavour element which will make the veg flavours shine out. Butter and Parmesan should be added at the end of the cooking process and the risotto allowed to rest.

You’ll know when the risotto is ready to eat as the rice will be soft with a slight bite. If you have used all your stock and the rice is still crunchy, you have either cooked the rice at too high a temperature and rather than being absorbed by the rice the stock has simply evaporated or; you have not added hot stock – if you add cold stock to the rice it will stop the cooking process every time.

Consistency is also important. Some risottos are loose others will hold their shape on the plate. Go with the texture you want, there is no right texture for risotto. Think about what it will be served with and how you want it to be enjoyed – it could be a side dish to a chicken breast with some veg and a sauce in which case you may want it to be thick, or, the risotto could be the sauce element of your main dish and it may want to be more of an oozing consistency. And so to the recipe…

Ingredients (serves 2):

  • 130g rice (Carnaroli or other risotto rice)
  • 77g pancetta (can be smoked), cubed
  • 400ml chicken stock (best quality you can get)
  • 100ml dry white wine or dry Vermouth
  • 1 banana shallot, finely diced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 fennel bulb, finely diced and fronds if any
  • 3 spring onions, white finely chopped, green finely chopped
  • asparagus – trim from 6 spears, ends finely chopped, shavings cut in half depending on size
  • handful of peas – frozen (defrosted) or fresh
  • 30g unsalted butter, cubed
  • Parmesan to taste
  • Lemon zest to taste
  • Salt and black pepper

Method:

  1. The stock needs to be hot so get this into a pan and put on a low heat. I add a bay leaf to either the stock or the pan.
  2. We need the Pancetta fat to cook everything in, so heat the pan you are going to use for the risotto on a medium heat and gently fry off the Pancetta cubes until they are golden and there is plenty of fat in the pan. Remove the Pancetta and set aside.
  3. Sweat off the shallot and fennel in the fat, add a pinch of salt, a little water, turn the heat down and put a lid on. After 5 minutes, add the white spring onion and the asparagus ends. Lid back on and sweat for another 5 minutes – the heat should be low so that we don’t colour the veg. If it looks like it is getting too hot add a little water.
  4. To the pan of sweated veg add the rice and give it a good stir to coat it in the fat. Add a pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper.
  5. Next into the pan add the alcohol and stir into the rice. Now is the time to get the temperature right – you want a medium heat, enough to cook the rice but not enough to boil the liquid dry. You should see the wine disappear into the rice. At this point you can add the bay leaf or any other herbs you want to use (either into the pot or the stock).
  6. Now, the only thing you need to concentrate on is the rice. Stir the rice all the time whilst adding a ladle (I find half ladles work well) of stock and waiting until the stock has been fully absorbed before adding the next. Pay attention to the heat of the pan, if things start to get too hot and bubbly, turn it down a notch. Keep going until either you run out of stock or the risotto is cooked. Aim to add your Pancetta back into the pot before the last addition of stock. It will take between 20 and 30 minutes to cook. If you run out of stock, you can use hot water to finish the cooking if necessary.
  7. Once you are happy with the rice kill the heat, add the butter, lemon zest (to taste) and Parmesan and gently stir it through along, then adjust the seasoning; followed with the peas and some of the asparagus shavings and green spring onion (reserving a little of each and the fennel fronds for garnish). Off the heat, put the lid on and let the risotto rest for a few minutes.
  8. Plate the risotto, dress with the veg, drizzle some EVO over the top and grate some Parmesan.
  9. Serve!

Notes:

This is easy to make vegetarian, just miss out the Pancetta and use EVO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) as the fat and a vegetable stock or bouillon.

The lemon zest will give a nice zing and will really make this dish taste of spring. Add it sparingly or simply sprinkle some over the top of each dish.

If you have edible flowers in the garden, use them to brighten the dish as well.

Frozen peas, don’t cook them, ever. The freezing process does enough to cook the vegetable flesh so really there is no need to cook them again. Just defrost and use them, they will warm up on a plate or in the dish (e.g. soup).

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