When interviewed for this job, I was asked if I cooked and if I would be willing to write about it for Cherwell. I answered yes, I can cook, though one of my flatmates would disagree. Fortunately, I already wrote about said flatmate’s cooking last term. In the interests of student food journalism, and my appetite, I convinced him to let me document his dishes once again.
The dish of the week was mushroom risotto, a simple Italian classic which nonetheless requires skill, and a patience I have personally never found in a kitchen. Its popularity is in part derived from its adaptability. The recipe can easily be adjusted to accommodate a variety of dietary requirements and preferences, and paired with a selection of light white wines. The mushrooms Jack chose were chestnut and shiitake. Porcini could not be found in our local supermarket at such short notice.
Anyone hoping for more specific ingredient quantities than last time is in for disappointment – this dish was cooked on instinct. It began by toasting the risotto to give it a nutty flavour. This step is not necessary but does improve the final taste. Then the onions were very finely diced and softened (though not browned) on a low heat in a mixture of melted butter and oil. Once they were partially cooked, the finely diced garlic was added, and the onions seasoned with a little salt, though not over-salted in anticipation of the salt in the stock added later. When the onions had softened, he added back the risotto rice, and separately fried the mushrooms.
The next step was to turn it up to high heat, and add a glass of white wine – in this case Dino Pinot Grigio, the cheapest available from our local supermarket. Once the alcohol has cooked off it was time to add stock. Jack recommended chicken, rather than beef for aesthetic reasons, though for this particular meal he used vegetable stock as the dish was vegetarian. Do not add it all at once, but rather little by little, cooking off the liquid each time. This must be constantly stirred, or if you have the skill (which he assures me that he does) tossing is better.
A common misconception is that risotto is made creamy by the butter and Parmesan added at the end, but the process of stirring releases starch from the rice which combines with the liquid to create the creamy quality of the dish. This is the reason a short grain rice is used; it releases far more starch. This stirring and tossing and stirring and tossing took forever. The time was used productively to practise the art of tea towel whipping. Never mind the assortment of knives and onions, this man’s culinary sadism knows no bounds.
Then suddenly the dish was done, the mushrooms combined, the risotto served. Jack elected to use a pecorino rather than a Parmesan cheese for a stronger flavour. I admired the balance between the smooth texture of the risotto, which was not however reduced to mush. It embodied simple umami flavours, warm and comforting in the cold weather. It was also ridiculously filling, so if you don’t have a hoover in human form it might require storage in the fridge. If you do choose to microwave it, some of the liquid may be lost resulting in a reduction of creaminess, but if done well this won’t ruin the dish.
Earlier in this article I mentioned the adaptability of risotto as a staple, and Jack had several suggestions on how that could be accomplished. The obvious variations include different meats and vegetables according to taste. When changing the former, be sure to switch the stock accordingly. Jack also recommended mixing in chorizo, as it releases a reddish oil when cooked, making it useful as a garnish to make the dish more visually appealing. Browning the butter could have a similar impact. Saffron was also recommended as an ideal variation, though this particular ingredient is unlikely to be found in a student kitchen.
Various adaptations of the dish led me to question (or more specifically, question Jack) on the relationship between risotto and paella. They are similar only in that they are both rice dishes – their preparation is very different. Paella is more similar to a Middle Eastern style of cooking, which sees all ingredients combined and cooked together. Risotto on the other hand prepares the rice and other components – such as meat and vegetables – separately until serving. This is somewhat unique as the liquid is continually reduced and replenished, a technique used solely on risotto or arborio rice.
Jack was not the only one of my flatmates to deny the extent (or rather the existence) of my cooking skills – though his critique was certainly the most deserved.
And this was not the first of my flatmates’ risottos I’ve sampled. I have the great fortune to live with Univ’s welfare rep, Marcus, who offered his own take on the dish this time last year. I don’t feel able to comment on the risotto itself, as every element was concealed by the sheer quantity of Parmesan. As the fluid was reduced, this classic Italian dish morphed into a block of solid cheese and rice, with no other discernible flavour or texture than Parmesan.
The only comment offered by the chef – “not enough parmesan”. It is worth mentioning, the flat fridge never contains fewer than four blocks of Parmesan, replenished on an almost daily basis due solely to Marcus’ consumption. Fortunately, his rizz more than compensates for his risotto (I had to work it in somewhere. Be ‘grate’ful I was talked out of ‘rizz’otto. Ok, I’ll stop now). My own culinary creations may not be complex or skilled, but they are at least palatable.
For an easy student meal I can only recommend risotto. It is simple, scalable, adaptable to most dietary requirements, and affordable within a student budget. However, if like me patience when cooking is not your forte, find a friend to cook it for you or the rushed result is sure to be a crunchy, soggy mess.