A well-made risotto is something anyone can achieve despite the fact it's often seen as exciting restaurant food these days. This fantastic northern Italian starchy rice makes the most silky, elegant dishes and has always been embraced by thrifty Italians. Oozy, creamy, comforting and delicious at any time of year, risotto is also an incredible blank canvas that allows you to make the most of whatever fresh produce happens to be in season. Ripe tomatoes and basil, tender chunks of butternut squash, grilled wild mushrooms, garlicky shellfish, delicate spring peas, broad beans and fresh mint… I could go on.
This week, I've gone with lovely wedges of fennel, cooked slowly and gently with a little chili until beautifully soft, sweet and caramelized. Stirred through oozy risotto and served with toasted pine nuts and delicate fennel fronds sprinkled on top, it's a corker of a dish. I've also used vodka instead of traditional white wine for a fragrant freshness that gives it something a little different.
Risotto is often seen as an event in cooking terms, but it's damn simple and can take as little as 20 minutes from start to finish. While it's slowly simmering you only need to give it a quick stir every couple of minutes, meaning that you can get on with other small jobs at the same time. Keep any leftovers in the fridge to transform into cheesy arancini or fish cakes or to toss through more roasted vegetables for a warm rice salad.
Servings: Serves 4.
1.4 litres (6 cups) organic chicken stock
2 bulbs of fennel, with fronds
2 knobs butter
Extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon dried chili flakes
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
4 stalks celery
450 grams (1 pound) Arborio rice
90 mL (1/3 cup) vodka
50 grams (1/3 cup) Parmesan cheese, finely grated
1 lemon, zest and juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
30 grams (about 1/4 cup) pine nuts
1 pinch of fennel seeds
Pour the stock into a pan over a low heat and leave it to simmer away until you need it. Cut each fennel bulb into eight wedges, reserving the fronds in a cup of cold water for later.
Heat 1 knob of butter and a splash of olive oil in a medium non-stick pan over medium-low heat. Add the chili flakes, fennel wedges and 8 tablespoons of the hot stock.
Place a damp piece of parchment paper snugly on top, cover with a lid, and cook for about 40 minutes, or until the fennel is soft, sweet and slightly caramelized.
Meanwhile, peel and finely chop the onion and garlic, then trim and finely chop the celery. Place in a high-sided pan over medium-low heat, along with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Cook for 15 minutes, or until softened but not coloured, stirring occasionally.
Stir in the rice for a couple of minutes, then turn the heat up to medium-high. Pour in the vodka and let it cook away completely. Stir in the remaining stock, a ladleful at a time, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding the next.
Let it cook for about 15 minutes, or until the rice is done but still holds its shape, stirring regularly.
Add a final splash of stock to loosen the consistency, then stir in the caramelized fennel mixture.
Remove from heat and add the second knob of butter. Add the grated Parmesan and lemon zest, and squeeze in the juice. Season with salt and pepper, cover and leave to sit for 2 minutes, then stir well.
Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan, then crush in a pestle and mortar.
Finish the risotto with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, then serve straightaway with a scattering of pine nuts, fennel seeds and fennel fronds.