Memories, in a pot.

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Everyone has that dish, that thing that someone used to make for them – whether it was mom or granny or whoever. And however good it actually was, there’s always a fair amount of rhapsodizing that goes on about how no-one’s ever going to make it the same, and it just brings back the memories of whatever-the-fuck.

The funny thing is that I’ve recently started finding out that it’s not only the eaters whose memories get tickled by specific bits of cooking. It’s the cookers as well.

It would be impossible for me to not think of the circumstances around which I first made a specific thing and for the memories of those circumstances to be brought up the next time I make it. It happens with everything; songs, smells, sounds, pictures, tv shows we remember, movies, books – whatever. And for me I’m quickly beginning to realize that cooking is perhaps one of the most powerful of them all.

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I had a couple of people around for Sunday lunch recently, and the things I chose to make were all to remind me of something specific, things I wanted to remember, and cooked to do so.

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Those memories are just for me, but if I’ve got a unusually stupid look on my face (more than normal I mean) when you’re eating something I’ve made, then maybe just don’t make any loud noises around me for a little bit. And if I’m trying something new, then best you pull out all the stops, because a new memory is busy being made.

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Champagne Risotto (for 4 as a main meal, 6 as a light starter)

This is dead easy, and the simplicity of the flavors makes it a wonderfully clean autumn dish. I love how risotto doesn’t actually need a lot done to it to be an excellent and satisfying experience.

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1 cup of arborio rice
2 cups of champagne/method cap classic/sparkling wine (semi-sweet)
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 handful grated Parmesan
1 handful gated mozzarella
1 generous handful of asparagus tips
About a liter of water, on standby
Juice of half a lemon
Salt
Pepper
a splash of olive oil

What to do

In a large pan, heat the olive oil, then add the chopped onion and garlic. Stir over the heat until softened and fragrant, then add the rice to the pan. Carry on stirring so that the rice is coated in the juices of the onion and olive oil, then add a cup of the champagne. Riding the heat, stir the rice until the champagne has been absorbed.

Now the trick is to just add water, one cup at a time – stirring all the while – so that whenever the rice looks like its getting dry it gets more water to absorb.

After about twenty minutes of stirring and adding water, you should have a pan of plump, juicy rice with a thickish sauce. At this point, give it a taste, and add salt and pepper accordingly. I like using slightly sweeter champagne for this recipe, which means having to season quite generously to balance it out, so just make sure you taste it and work accordingly.

In a separate pan, heat another splash of olive oil, add the asparagus tips, season them salt and pepper and squeeze over the lemon juice. Let them roll around in the heat for about five minutes.

As a final step for the risotto, add the second cup of champagne, the cheese and stir until all absorbed until nice and cheesy and thick but not pasty. Check the seasoning again, and adjust if necessary. Top it with the asparagus, and serve straight from the pan.

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thanks to the always Instagram-ready Candice-Reney for these

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my cat is not mad, I promise

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Royal Risotto

If only crowns were made of this. Pity.

Dear Wills and Kate,

Well done for getting hitched.

Wills, I especially like how you handled your bald-spot with dignity and humour. It bodes well for you that you carry your physical ridiculousness quite comfortably, because seeing how the rest of your family have gone – you’re in for a lot of it along the way.

I watched you guys on a small youtube window on my computer while making some risotto for my lunch.  It’s probably not the most romantic or indeed traditional way to watch your wedding I know, but there were a couple of factors. Firstly, I just didn’t know if I could handle Elton John in HD.  He looks like a potplant that plays host to a scrappy little swampfrog these days, and my TV is new, so… sorry about that.  Secondly, I would have been up to my eyeballs in Yorkshire Pudding and Spotted Dick and all that other English stuff, if it weren’t for the fact that I didn’t plan ahead and happened to have some risotto in the cupboard at the time, so went that way instead.  Again, sorry about that.

Kate. You smile a lot. I hope it’s not because you’re hiding some cosmic and infinite pain inside, and more because Wills is a funny guy and constantly makes jokes about friendly badgers and a wisecracking owl. Congratulations on snagging your prince, even though your sister is hotter and doesn’t have those thin lips you’re cursed with (see earlier section about bald spots), I’m sure you will be very happy.

I’m glad you decided to sing so much during your wedding, because it meant I had the chance to see the Queen forget the words to ‘Jerusalem’, which was most excellent. This also unfortunately proves that she’s probably not a marauding space-robot, as I’ve long suspected. But it is somewhat comforting to know that at the end of the day she’s just an old bat who looks surprisingly good in yellow (her diet of canaries, human placenta and lemon cream probably has something to do with that).

Your kiss was small, but probably the right thing to do. I know the Royal Snipers were definitely on standby somewhere in the crowd, ready to unleash hell if there was the slightest hint of tongue, so good save.

Thanks for all the laughs, and may I suggest that your first child be called Morris. But only if it’s a girl.

Sincerely.

Jono

This risotto is exactly the same recipe that can be found here, but instead of using the rosa tomatoes, bacon and apricots, substitute the oven-baked tomatoes used in this recipe.  Ridiculously simple, quick and vegelicious. 

Biting off more than you can chew.

Everyone loves a comeback. Unless it’s Cliff Richard or one of the boy bands that wasn’t N’Sync. Actually scratch that, the only comeback I want to see from a boy band is in an X-box game called “Shoot All Boy Bands.”

You see, I’ve been going through a particularly horrendous cooking patch. Nothing particularly fun, nothing particularly inventive – it was all rather beginning to feel like the third season of one of those shows that originally started off full of bright promise and pretty starlets and punchy dialogue, but by the third year it’s all getting tired and flabby and the writers couldn’t really be bothered, which is why most episodes are 85% montage sequences cut to stoopid pop music and 15% excuses for product placement. I call it Josh Schwartzitis (come back to us Gossip Girl, just one good episode and all will be forgiven).

Then this happened.

This honestly should come with some type of orchestral fanfare.

And it felt like the moment when someone finally musters the energy to lift themselves out from under the mountain of salt ‘n vinegar chip packets, wade through the empty tubs of ‘mucho mexicano monster dip’, lift their fringe off their face long enough to see where they’re going and switch the VH1 ‘So 80s!’ marathon off.

It was unexpected and, amazingly, there were witnesses. My viciously talented friend Dale captured the whole evening here in between eating the hell out of it

So, hallelujah, this was possibly the most delicious and aesthetically pleasing thing I’ve ever made, and I was totally poised to write some fairly self-congratulatory stuff about it. Which means it was entirely possible that most of the people who somehow still read this blog would immediately consign me to a box in their heads marked “insufferable cocksmoker”. This would have been okay by me because none of those people had managed to make a Madagascan curry prawn starter on sweet potato roti with minted yoghurt. So there.

But then something else happened, something that made a pretty little seafood dish seem totally insignificant (when it rains, it clearly pours).

Quite nervously, over a dinner of sushi and red wine (not Technically Correct I know, but screw it, it’s getting colder down this neck of the woods and white wine is getting less fun by the day), some dear friends of mine asked me to cater their wedding for them.

Happy people in the road.

Now let me explain something here.  I have fairly large balls when it comes to Impossible Ventures That Are Certain To End In Failure (Trevor and Justine don’t read this bit, I’m sure your wedding will turn out just fine). What I mean to say is that I’m too stupid to know when to say no. Plus, I really like these two and cooking for 80 people on Their Special Day seems like more fun than having to make making small talk with Auntie Merle in the queue for the champagne cocktails (“No I’m not gay. Yes I’m sure. Well I can’t explain why no girls want to talk to me. I understand it was different in your day. I’m sure your niece is a lovely girl, but maybe now isn’t the best time. Okay fine. Here’s my number. Tell her she can call any time.”) Which are all factors that contributed towards me saying “yes!!!” before even pausing for a moment to run through a list of the things I should have been thinking about when considering their request.

Like:

a)    80 people is a lot. It’s more people that can fit my apartment. It’s more people than I’m likely to sleep with in my life. It’s more people than know the actual answer to the question, “What is the proof to Fermat’s Last Theorem?”

b)   80 people is a lot. It’s more people than I can buy pizza for. It’s like inviting Jacob Zuma and his extended family for lunch.

c)    80 people is a lot.

So. For the next little bit I’m going to be using this blog as a virtual pillow in which to scream into. Whenever the idea of what I’ve taken on board here gets too much, I will turn to the Great Big Nothingness of the internet for either reassurance, or people telling me I’m a nutjob and what the hell was I thinking.

So. By my reckoning there are approximately 212 (ish) days left until their wedding.  I have, in this time, got to figure out a 3-course menu that I can conceivably put together for the money they have, in the time they have, and for the amount of people they’ve invited. I’m thinking of calling it: Help Me To Not Fuck Up Trevor And Justine’s Wedding.

Catchy.

And (sort of) the process has already begun. A recent cold and rainy day saw me invite the happily engaged couple for Sunday Lunch – mostly as an excuse to spend a day drinking wine, but also because I wanted to start feeling them out as to what they were eager to eat on the day they look each other in the eye and say ‘I do’.

So as an opening salvo for a starter, I offer:

My balls on the block. As it were.

Crispy-fried Risotto Balls with Rocket and Plum Chutney.

This is very simple.

Follow the risotto recipe previously offered on this site, which is here (or alternately any risotto recipe you fancy).

Then, put the finished risotto in a sealable container and place in the freezer for about 45 minutes – you need this to get quite solid.

After that, use your hands to shape the risotto into golf-ball sized balls, then roll them in flour.

Meanwhile, get a pot of sunflower oil (about four fingers deep – enough to totally cover your risotto) nice and hot. You can test it by dropping a crumb of bread into the oil, if it starts to bubble and spit, it’s hot enough.

Carefully drop the risotto balls into the oil and fry until golden brown. Remove them with a slotted spoon and pat dry with some paper towel.

Serve with fresh rocket leaves and plum chutney (I did not make mine from scratch, I sourced this amazing chutney).

So? Good enough for a wedding?

As a footnote. If anyone’s interested in what I’m actually doing during the long gaps between posts on this blog, all that’s needed is to click here and go to Jono Hall on the left hand side.

The “Pigs Are Awesome” Risotto

I tried to make it look more appetising. I should have hired some dancing girls...
I tried to make it look more appetising. I should have hired some dancing girls...

Yeah, so they might give us a weird form of flu that kills us, they can’t look up and quite a significant percentage of the world’s population won’t touch them for religious reasons, but I happen to think pigs are just great. Mostly because they taste so good I dearly hope that the afterlife comes stocked with a lot of bacon.

In celebration of swine-amazingness, here’s a recipe I’m very, very proud of.

Before we kick off, just a quick word about risotto. Despite its recent rise in popularity as a menu-item in restaurants (I mean seriously – it’s like we only found out about it like…yesterday and now its this new ‘wonder-food’), there’s still a general skepticism about cooking it at home. Mostly I guess because of its perceived “difficulty” to make. Well, stop getting all knotted up – because it’s actually one of the easiest things in the world, it just requires a bit of stirring, that’s all.

Okay, a lot of stirring, but you know…that happens. I usually just make sure I’ve got a very full glass of wine at my elbow and my computer propped up where I can see it (playing an episode of something or other) before I get going, and the whole process doesn’t take long at all.

Another thing, don’t be put off by the fact that for the first 20 minutes or so, your risotto is going to look like a weird gloopy soup with bits in it. It’s meant to. An amazing, almost miraculous thing will happen in the last ten minutes of cooking time, when suddenly the rice softens and swells, the last of your stock boils off and you’re left with the ridiculous deliciousness of your finished risotto.

Okay – enough of that.

Ingredients

1 cup of risotto (Arborio) rice

My cat Ella is very good at stalking stationary objects.
My cat Ella is very good at stalking stationary objects.

1 small brown onion
1 clove of garlic
1 small handful of rosa tomatoes
smoked bacon (or good quality streaky bacon)
dried apricots
1 cup of white wine
1 handful of parmesan cheese (finely grated)
fresh basil
about 1 liter of fresh stock (chicken or beef)
1 knob of butter
1 tbsp of olive oil
salt
pepper

What to do

Oh, one cup of risotto rice does enough for about 4 people.

So, first things first, soak your dried apricots in some freshly boiled water. You can put them aside, they need about twenty minutes to plump and soften up.

Peel and finely chop the onion and the clove of garlic, slice the rosa tomatoes into halves and chop a large handful of bacon into smallish chunks.

Okay – this is the only bit that’s going to take a bit of judgment on your part: the sweet apricot flavour is what makes this dish, but too much of it and it quickly becomes overbearing. I usually add just less than one part of finely chopped apricots (that’s the key – no big pieces) to two parts bacon to get the right balance. I hope that makes sense. Ultimately the trick is to get a predominant flavour of smoky bacon, just underpinned with the sweet apricot.

In a pan, heat the butter and the olive oil, then add the onions, garlic, tomatoes, bacon and apricots and let them sweat in the heat for about 3 minutes or so. Then add the cup of rice and stir it all up, coating the rice with the juices from everything that’s in the pan. Once it’s all been getting to know each other for about 2 minutes or so. Add the cup of wine and then stir as the alcohol burns off and the rice starts to absorb the liquid.

Then add a ladle of stock, keep stirring until its absorbed, and then add another.

Now it’s just a question of stir, add stock, stir, add stock, stir…drink wine, stir, add stock, watch Gossip Girl, stir.

It should take about 20 minutes to half an hour (depending on the quality of your rice) for it to cook through. But if you’re not sure, just taste some – if its still a bit crunchy – keep going.

And then, just as your last bit of liquid has been nicely absorbed, add a handful of parmesan cheese and some chopped fresh basil, and stir a bit more. I usually don’t bother to put it into a different dish to serve, but just put the pan on the table and let people help themselves, topped with the leftover basil and parmesan.