How to cook life and a divine recipe for risotto

Kale Pesto Risotto with Lemon Zest

There has been no greater joy in my life than having children.  They have been as endlessly rewarding as the seasons, filled with miracles, every moment never quite the same, but the feeling of “home” and “place” stay constant.

One of them has followed into the footsteps of his daddy and loves to cook with a passion.  I used to read cookbooks.  I still do, a bit like other people read novels.  I think I have several thousand cookbooks now…certainly enough to rival the Julia Childs collection at the Smithsonian.  They were not “collected” as such.  Only a few are “collectible”.  No, they have been read.  They are well worn and cooked from, and every single one is a fantasy world created by the author inside which one can crawl.

Today, this child of mine learns from youtube videos, and having a watched a few, there is an awful lot you can learn faster through the medium of film that is quite difficult to master with the written word.  Yes, nothing matches in-person instruction.  Confession.  I teach cooking.  But perversely what drew me to it was how little I knew about food and cooking (and how much I wanted to know)…somewhere along the line the idea that the best way to learn was to teach—if you want to teach something you need to really understand it.

Food and cooking are the essence of home.  There is the social aspect that is enabled by this.  To gather around the table, enjoying the fruits of toil over the hearth fire.  There are few things that speak to me with more soulful nourishment.  One of my now ex-therapists (they seem strewn behind me like the toys in a child’s bedroom after an afternoon of unbridled play) was a hypnotist and soul retriever.  In session with her she asked about what words like “safety” and “comfort” evoked…and what scene provided spiritual sustenance, joy, and comfort.  I kept coming back to a well-laden table and the noise of multiple conversations weaving like threads, the light of candles drawing the shining and happy faces ever closer, the shadows in the corners of the. room being teased by the flickering light, pushed back, sent packing.

Cooking in this sense is nourishment to the soul.  For the giver and the receiver.

This particular child has voiced a desire to really learn how to cook.  Raised on a diet of cooking shows, the aspirational aspects of rock-star chefs has certainly soaked in.  Despite the passion for the topic, and all the times we cooked together, mainly cakes, when they were all growing up, this child never wanted to cook to learn from me.  I guess it is difficult to learn from your parents?

“Do you want to learn how to make risotto?” I asked.  I was about to make some that afternoon and I had a rather scrummy version up my sleeve.  Risotto with kale pesto, laced with lemon zest and made with a light stock of pheasant.  It was actually beyond historic delicious.  The recipe is below.  This would be a good lesson for this child, as it works from a template that can be applied to any kind of risotto: vegetable, bone marrow, seafood, meat, mushroom, whatever…and, the concept can also be taken to other grains—spelt, barley, wheat berries.

“Papa, I already know how to make risotto,” they said.

“Really?  When did you make it?”

“Tons of times.  Whenever you aren’t here I make it for Mama.”

They told me that they had made a delicious risotto using apple juice.  “That sounds pretty advanced,” I said, not really sure what it would taste like.  “How did you make the decisions about what to make so that it was good.”

“It was delicious,” they said.  They were very proud of it.

“Why don’t you teach me how to make risotto then?”  And with this opening, they and I had a lovely, shared experience of cooking together.  And learning.

Over lunch, as we all enjoyed the dish on the menu that day, reflecting on just how delicious it was, we were able to talk about the decisions you have to make in risotto making that allow you to take it any direction at all.

“This was fun, but what I want to learn is how to make bread,” he said.  Boy, a flood of memories.  My first culinary obsession was breadmaking.  It struck in my early twenties.  At any party in roaring London, I would say to anyone who would listen that my obsession was bread, and that I was trying to figure out how to do it.  Some women were amused.  Some were bored out of their minds.  One guy said it was easy, but then added, “once you master it.”  Indeed.  I shall tell that story someday.

Risotto with Kale Pesto and Lemon Zest

This is a basic template for any risotto that you might make.  First, a few guidelines:

  • 100 g uncooked risotto rice per serving (generous)
  • Stock should match tone, but a light chicken stock is versatile enough to support vegetable, meat, and fish-based risotto
  • Parmigiano is suited for meat (game, chicken, beef, pork, marrow); pecorino is best for fish, shellfish, and vegetables
  • Stock should be kept hot (not boiling) and added a little at a time.  The creaminess is due to the constant stirring.
  • Arborio is the most common type of risotto rice, but carnaroli is my favourite, and vialone nano is also fab…and as with all things in Italy, there are many other local varieties
  • The rice should be cooked on medium, and it should be served with a distinctive bite still left—al dente

This recipe is sufficient for 4 people as the main dish

  • 2 litres of light chicken stock, I used a homemade pheasant stock
  • 3 shallots, peeled and minced fine
  • Olive oil q.b.
  • 400 g risotto rice
  • 100 g finely grated pecorino romano
  • 500 g kale leaves, stems removed, minced and added to the stock
  • Juice of ½ a lemon
  • Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
  • 50 g pine nuts
  • 2 tablespoons of butter
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat the stock.  You can place any stem pieces of the kale into it to give it extra flavour.

Sweat the shallots on medium low heat in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan that is large enough and high-sided enough to contain the risotto and prevent molten splashing (and big enough to handle such a large volume of kale).  Stir in the risotto rice to coat.

Add stock by the ladle and stir with each addition.  Continue doing so, a little at a time, until the risotto is nearly done.  It will be just a wee bit al dente and have a slightly chalky bite.  

Stir in the kale.  Stir to cook the kale, about 2 minutes.  Toss in the lemon zest and pine nuts to mix in.  Add in the pecorino and the knob of butter.  Remove from the heat.  Stir to mix.

Taste for seasoning and serve it forth.  Delicious.

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