In Italy in the Middle Ages, rice was regarded as an exotic treat for the rich, and imported at great expense. Later, when the Italians started cultivating it themselves, rice became accessible to ordinary people, who often cooked it in stock along with whatever bits were to hand, and in the process turned rice into a food of the poor, or cucina povera. Ironically, it was this fall from the tables of the rich to the poor that led to the development of risotto as we now know it, and which is featured in grand and humble restaurants alike all over the world. Despite its origins, however, to me risotto has always seemed the epitome of luxury, with all that care and attention from the constant stirring directly translated into each magnificent forkful.
Tomato and fennel risotto with goats’ curd and marjoram
It’s hard to feel the need to eat meat when vegetables taste this good. The tomato, Pernod and parmesan in this gloriously rich risotto bring a fifth-dimension umami taste, with accents of flavour from the chilli and fennel seeds, plus sweetness and depth from the onions and garlic. If you can’t find fresh marjoram, oregano or wild fennel will also work. And if you can’t find goats’ curd, use a soft, mild goats’ cheese instead (or make your own: it’s surprisingly simple). Serves four to six.
500g ripe plum tomatoes
1 tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and finely chopped, fronds reserved
¼-½ tsp dried chilli (or to taste)
1 tsp fennel seeds
Salt and freshly ground pepper
300g carnaroli or arborio rice
150ml Pernod (or vermouth)
About 1 litre warm vegetable stock
20g grated parmesan
1 big handful fresh marjoram or oregano leaves
75g goats’ curd
Bring a large pan of water to a boil. Score the base of each tomato with a small X, then carefully drop them into the boiling water and blanch for 10 seconds. Scoop out into a colander and rinse under cold water until cool, then peel and roughly chop.
Melt 60g butter and the oil in a large pan on a medium-low heat. Add the onion, garlic, fennel, chilli, fennel seeds and a pinch of salt, and cook gently for 20-25 minutes, stirring often, so it doesn’t catch.
Turn up the heat to medium and stir in the chopped tomatoes, rice and a teaspoon of salt. Stir for three or so minutes, then turn up the heat, add the Pernod and simmer for two minutes, until the alcohol has evaporated and most of the liquid has been absorbed by the rice.
Add a small ladleful of stock to the pot, and lightly beat into the rice with a wooden spoon, until the rice has absorbed all the liquid. Repeat, adding a ladleful of stock at a time and beating fairly continuously (this constant motion is the secret to a light, creamy risotto), until the rice is tender, but still has a bite to it (this should take about 15 minutes); if you use up all the stock before the rice is done, add more hot stock or hot water, ladleful by ladleful – you want the texture to be a little wet, so make sure you add enough liquid.
When the rice is done, beat in the remaining 20g butter, parmesan and half the marjoram, then leave the risotto to rest, partially covered, for 10 minutes. Season to taste, then spoon on to warm plates or shallow bowls and dot with the curd. Scatter over the rest of the marjoram and the reserved fennel fronds, and serve hot.
And for the rest of the week…
Both Pernod and vermouth are great for flavouring baked or cooked creams, which I love at this time of year to go with all our wonderful soft fruit. The goats’ curd makes a delicious pudding or breakfast with honey, berries and toasted nuts or oats. Marjoram is hard to get hold of, so try growing it in a pot or window box – its woody flavour transforms most grilled food. I like to smash it with lemon zest, chilli and garlic to make a marinade for chicken or fish.
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