Food & Drink: Each grain coated in contentment

Annie Bell suggests an alternative to the turkey dinner
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The Independent Online
Rice makes a perfect festive dish: like a Christmas tree, it is what you hang on it that counts. So first select your ingredients and then start building, vegetables alone or assorted crustaceans and a stock to match.

At Christmas a craving for familiarity sets in. Risottos provide solace and contentment, and the one detailed here absorbs elements of a traditional Christmas dinner. Mushrooms are centre-stage, the dried porcini are mandatory, but the choice of fresh mushrooms can range from a de-luxe wild blend of chanterelles, girolles and trompettes des morts, to a more modest cultivated mix of shiitake and oyster. It does not even have to be a mix, just a single mushroom of your choice.

The risotto is surrounded with a cordon of beetroot sauce in a brilliant shade of shocking pink. By way of trimmings there are some crisp, deep-fried sage leaves, and roasted and glazed chestnuts.

A word about risotto rice: there is a new ''special selection'' department at Sainsbury which stocks Carnaroli rice. If you have access to a good Italian deli you may already be choosing between Arborio, Vialone Nano and Carnaroli. The latter fetches a premium with its chunky grains, and there is less likelihood of it turning to pudding.

Peeling chestnuts is a case for sore fingers. The problem is not the outer but the inner skin. There is no effective gadgetry, and a company that apparently monopolised the ''cooked and peeled chestnut market'' went bankrupt last year. Not all is bleak, though; some delicatessens do stock cooked and peeled, and Waitrose sells them frozen.

But home-roasted chestnuts, lovingly peeled, are a part of Christmas. The best I can offer by way of a hot tip is that you shock the chestnuts with a cold wet towel as outlined below. This facilitates both skins coming away at the same time.

For delicate appetites I would recommend a light first course, perhaps a salad of softly poached quails' eggs and frisee with a grainy mustard vinaigrette, and for pudding some fruits preserved in a liqueur spooned over ice-cream. Heartier types will still cope with Christmas pudding, plus brandy or rum butter and a river of vanilla custard; then cheese, and a platter of dried fruits, nuts and chocolates.

Christmas Eve: Prepare the beetroot sauce. Roast and peel the chestnuts. You can also grate the parmesan, chop the onion and clean the mushrooms ready for the risotto.

Christmas Day: Deep-fry the sage leaves in advance of dinner. The risotto usually takes 20-25 minutes to cook, and if you are herding people into a dining room, remember that can take 15 minutes. Better to keep everyone waiting than serve a stodgy risotto.

Wild mushroom risotto with beetroot sauce, glazed chestnuts and deep-fried sage leaves

Serves 4

Ingredients for the beetroot sauce: 14oz (395g) uncooked beetroot

3tbs double cream

5-8fl oz (140-225ml) double-strength vegetable stock

1/2 clove, freshly ground salt, pepper

Preparation: Preheat the oven to 160C/320F/gas 3, scrub the beetroots if they are dirty and roast for 2 hours. When cool enough to handle, remove the skin with a sharp knife and cut into pieces. Liquidise beetroot together with cream, then gradually add the stock, clove and seasoning: it should be a little thicker than double cream. Remove to a jug, cover and chill until required. Reheat while risotto is cooking.

Ingredients for the glazed chestnuts:

1lb ( 1/2 kg) chestnuts, or 8oz (225g) peeled

1oz (28g) unsalted butter

5fl oz (140ml) vegetable stock

1/2 tsp castor sugar


Preparation: Preheat the oven on its highest setting. Make an incision across the top of each chestnut and roast for 15 minutes. Wring out a heavy towel with very cold water, lay the hot chestnuts on it and fold it over on top of them. When cool enough to handle, after about 15 minutes, peel away the inner and outer skin; you can use a knife to help. Do not worry if some break. Cover and chill until required.

While the risotto is cooking, place chestnuts with remaining ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a simmer, cover and cook over a low heat tor 10 minutes. Most of the liquid should be absorbed; cook uncovered to evaporate until the chestnuts are glazed.

Ingredients for the deep-fried sage leaves: groundnut oil for deep-frying

2 small handfuls sage leaves

Preparation: Heat the oil and fry the leaves momentarily until the bubbles subside. Remove with a slotted utensil and drain on kitchen paper.

Ingredients for the risotto: 1oz (28g) dried porcini

3oz (85g) unsalted butter

12oz (340g) fresh mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 3/4 -2 pints (1 litre) vegetable stock (including mushroom liquor)

1 small onion, finely chopped

10oz (280g) risotto rice

5fl oz (140ml) white wine

2oz (55g) freshly grated parmesan

salt, pepper

Preparation: Soak the dried porcini in 1/2 pint (1/4 litre) of boiling water for 15 minutes. Heat 1/2 oz (14g) of the butter in a frying pan and cook half the fresh mushrooms for 2-3 minutes. Reserve in a bowl and cook the remainder likewise.

Drain the soaked mushrooms, strain liquor if gritty, and make the liquor up to 2 pints (1 litre) with vegetable stock. Keep this simmering on the stove while the risotto is cooking. Coarsely chop the soaked mushrooms and combine with the fresh ones.

Heat 1 1/2 oz (40g) butter in a heavy-bottomed pan and sweat onion over a low heat until it is translucent and soft. Add rice and cook for 1-2 minutes. You can prepare it to this point in advance and it will take 15 minutes to finish.

Add the wine. When this is absorbed add the mushrooms and start to add the simmering stock. The risotto should take 20-25 minutes. Remove from heat while grains are still firm and it is a touch too moist; it should then arrive on the table at the correct consistency. Stir in parmesan and remaining butter and adjust seasoning.

To serve: divide the risotto between warm plates and pour the sauce around the edge; spoon chesnuts in the centre of the risotto and scatter sage leaves over the sauce.