Friday, 13 August 2010

Risotto with Courgettes and Basil and Mint Pesto

We have a new restaurant in the Carluccio's chain coming to our High Street and I'm certainly not complaining about that, but for some reason there are a lot of places to get Italian food in thisCarluccios area . I felt I ought to try to reduce my carbonara footprint and avoid cooking anything with even a vaguely Italian pedigree for a week or two. I failed miserably thanks to my risotto craving.

I remember many years ago shopping in Mr Carluccio's original Neal Street deli and on a couple of occasions the man himself was there. At the time I'd never made a risotto but he told me that there was nothing to be afraid of and many hundreds of risottos later I can confirm that he was right.

Plenty of people far better qualified than I have described the process of adding hot stock to rice to make risotto, so I don't think it's worth me repeating it, but it might be worth passing on a tip I was given some time ago (not by Mr Carluccio, I hasten to add). If you need to prepare the risotto in advance, after adding the rice and wine or whatever you're using to the softened onion or shallots, stir in around a third of your hot stock all at once (and it really must be hot). You can then put the lid on the pan and let it sit for some time. When you're ready, you can finish off the risotto in the usual way by adding the rest of the hot stock gradually with plenty of stirring. This makes risotto less of a last minute dish. Not traditional, I know, but it works with very little damage to the finished product.

I've got a lot of courgettes in the garden at the moment and slicing and drying them prior to cooking works well in risottos. You need to slice the courgettes lengthwise into quite thin strips (not too thin, though, unless you want courgette crisps). Dry the strips of courgette out in a low oven (110ÂșC or thereabouts) for between 50 and 90 minutes, depending on thickness. You want them to feel quite dry but not completely desiccated. If the weather's good then you can simply cover the slices with a cloth and leave them out in the sun to dry. Once dried either grill or fry the slices in a very small amount of olive oil for a few moments until they're browned and a little charred. Stir them into the risotto very near the end of its cooking.

Courgettes also work well with mint and basil "pesto" (OK so it's not really pesto). The exact amount of each ingredient in the “pesto” mix can vary according to taste and what you happen to have, but the intention is to end up with a loose and quite sharply-flavoured sauce.

Mint Pesto
2 handfuls mint leaves
1 handful basil leaves
1 handful blanched almonds
juice of ½ small lemon
a tablespoon (or so) extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1 handful grated parmesan


Put the first four ingredients into a small processor (or a pestle and mortar) and process until everything is thoroughly smashed up - although a little texture is no bad thing. Season and add enough oil to give a coating consistency, then stir in the parmesan. Leave aside until needed, but make sure it's at room temperature when you use it. Stir it lightly into the risotto just before serving.

If you add this “pesto” at the end of the cooking process, then be careful not to add too much butter to finish the dish - it just won't taste right. In fact I hardly ever use butter to finish a risotto at all, partly to cut down on fat but mostly because I've had some terrible risottos in restaurants which were actually fried rice in congealed butter stuffed into a ring mould.