Food: Go with the grain

Like other staples, the cooking of rice takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. Photograph by Jason Lowe
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Very gingerly, over recent years, I have become obsessed by cooking and eating good rice. Now I didn't used to enjoy either option. Rice that I had cooked myself always seemed to turn out all wrong whatever I did to it, frustrating the very devil out of me. So, quite naturally, I also decided I didn't like eating it either. One of the reasons for this stems, simply, from not understanding one's basic ingredients from the outset.

A grain of rice, on the surface (ironically one of its most important aspects in the risotto process, but more of that later), seems such a simple thing to cook. I mean, one would think it has to be, being the staple diet for most of the world. But as is usually the way with the familiar and necessary in life - whether it's a simple pot of beans with sausage in northern Spain, boiled noodles in soup from a roadside shack in a Tokyo suburb or superb chips cooked in beef dripping (never bettered, as far as this connoisseur is concerned, than those up at Bryan's Fish Restaurant, Headingley, Leeds) - the end product is a success simply because "this is the only way we know how to do it round here".

I was recently informed - and on very good authority indeed - that our best beloved and most influential of all cookery writers, Marcella Hazan, regularly uses stock cubes when making an everyday, Venetian risotto. Why yes, of course, a superlative brodo (meat stock) is going to enhance the taste but it is the understanding of how rice behaves, as you cook it, that is the secret to the feel of the grains in the mouth. Great risotto is first and foremost a textural pleasure. Then, soon after the pure taste of good rice has been enjoyed simply for itself (often shamefully forgotten in the rush for novelty) a thoughtful, secondary flavour may be introduced. This is, essentially, an embellishment. The rice is all.

I still remember a perfectly plain risotto ai bianco (white risotto) that I enjoyed in an unassuming trattoria in a suburb of Milan some 15 or 20 years ago. The dish was flecked with translucent, indispensable pieces of chopped onion, deeply rich with butter and bound with plenty of grated Parmesan. It flowed on to my plate as lava, spooned directly from its copper cooking pan, totally without adornment as, I now know, it should be. I recall being almost disappointed by its nudity until I put some in my mouth.

Possibly the most important insight from stirrings from the Veneto, was the hugely important friction that must occur when agitating the rice as the hot liquid is introduced to it. For it is during this time that the outer coating of each grain has a chance to release its all-important starch. This cannot happen all on its own; well, it can, but only partially. Which is why if you do not stir the risotto with the tempo of a whirling dervish, most of that essential creaminess remains in the rice, when it should, most deliciously, have helped the thing become a whole: creamy and starchy, yet loose and fondant all at once. Those of you who, like me, have been disappointed with a risotto that once spooned out from pan to plate is sort of just rice and juice, have simply been lazy stirrers.

Here is a recipe for that simple risotto ai bianco, much tried and tested by yours truly, with a little help from readings, experimentation, eating, stirring and the advice of that precise, former bio-chemist - turned legendary cook and author - Marcella Hazan. It's little wonder she understood what happens to a grain of rice when you hit it a lot with a wooden spoon.

Risotto ai bianco, serves 4

Apparently, the rice called carnaroli is the one that MH prefers, so there it is. It is traditional to add a small glass of white wine at the beginning of any risotto process and one would think particularly so with a dish as plain as this one. But, controversially, this is often omitted (so I have been informed) by MH. I was really glad to hear this, as I have also noticed that the taste of that initial shot of mild alcohol never fully dissipates. And, ironically, with a risotto as pure as this, its taint is more noticeable than usual.

A couple more things. Make sure that the stock you use is as "white" (colourless) as possible, otherwise the risotto will turn out a muddy brown. It may taste good, but we are talking of perfection here. Also, if you even think of flinging a few "shavings" of Parmesan on your risotto when you serve it, instead of the blindingly obvious grated cheese, I'll come and search you out and biff you on the nose. The cheese needs to melt into the risotto instantaneously, not hang around as embarrassed peelings.

150g butter

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

300g carnaroli rice

1.5 litres light chicken stock (or cubes), of which you may not need all

salt and white pepper

5tbs freshly grated Parmesan, plus a little more, if liked, at time of serving

Melt 100g of the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot. (I should also say here, that the pot should not be too wide, as the narrower and higher-sided the vessel, the more intense and compact the stirring will be.) Have the stock sitting close by, at a low simmer. Add the onion to the butter and cook slowly, until soft and translucent. Tip in the rice and turn up the heat. Stir the rice around with the onion until glistened by the butter, before adding the first ladle of hot stock.

This will immediately cause a satisfying seethe, whereupon the stock will almost immediately be absorbed by the rice as you vigorously stir. Add the second ladle now, stirring energetically as instructed, until this too has been absorbed. As you continue this process, each additional ladle of stock will take longer to absorb as the rice finds its work more arduous, its starchy coating being continually eroded by the efficiency of your sturdy spoon. Do also ensure that you keep the heat up high under the risotto during the whole process.

Soon after two thirds of the stock have been incorporated, it is time to have the odd nibble at a grain of rice. Along with checking on pasta, this is clearly the obvious way to find out when the rice is on the way to being ready to eat. Once the texture of the rice is firm to the teeth, now is the time to add the last ladle of stock.

(That phrase "firm to the teeth" may well translate as al dente, but when it is quickly followed by the wickedly inaccurate " ... and when the grains of rice are still a little chalky in the middle ... ", it truly makes my blood boil. "Chalky in the middle" is the description most used by those who have never cooked - or clearly ever eaten - good risotto. In these cases, a glossy photograph of the finished dish, not surprisingly, is decorated most delicately with pieces of carefully shaved Parmesan ... )

Once that last ladleful has been added and incorporated, stir in the remaining 50g of butter, switch off the heat and tightly cover the pan. Leave alone for 5 minutes now, to allow the rice to enjoy a final, quiet swell. For a last-minute, fail-safe indication that the rice is cooked, eat a bit once more after this: the swollen grains should now give nicely to the bite, sort of fudgy yet melting. Reheat the risotto briefly and vigorously stir it for the last time. As you so do, sprinkle in the 5 tablespoons of Parmesan and incorporate fully, until the whole mass is sleek and glossy. Serve straight from the pan, with not a little pride.

Spiced chicken and rice with cucumber and yoghurt, serves 4

You can either use a small whole chicken here or simply thighs; the latter will possibly produce a slightly more flavoursome dish in toto. Mind you, if you choose the former route, there is the added benefit of a nice carcase for making a fine stock. It surely goes without saying, that this stock should be ready for use before you start the dish. I have also made this dish simply using cubes.

1dsp coriander seeds

1dsp cumin seeds

1dsp fennel seeds

25g butter

2tbsp olive oil

salt

1 x 1.5kg chicken or 8 large thighs

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

400g basmati rice

600g hot chicken stock

2 large red chillies, sliced (de-seeded or not, it's up to you)

1tsp saffron threads

2tbsp coarsely chopped coriander

For the cucumber and yoghurt

1/2 cucumber, peeled

a little salt

a few shakes Tabasco

1/2tsp sugar

200ml plain yoghurt

2 spring onions, trimmed and sliced

1tbsp finely chopped mint leaves

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/ gas mark 4.

First prepare the spices. Put the coriander, cumin and fennel in a small, dry frying pan and heat through gently, stirring around, until they start to give off their perfume somewhat and have also taken on a little colour. Tip into a pestle and mortar (or electric coffee grinder) and pulverise.

If you are using a whole chicken, first remove the wing tips (for stock). Then detach the leg and thigh pieces, followed by the breasts, which should be cut away from the central breast bone in two whole supremes.

Using a heavy knife, cleave each drumstick and thigh in two, then cut each supreme into 4 chunks - two of which will include a small wing bone. If you decide upon just the thighs, however, simply trim off excess fat or flaps of skin and chop each one in two.

Next, take a large and wide cast-iron casserole dish (preferably one with a lid) and melt the butter and oil in it until it begins to froth. Season the chicken pieces with salt and cautiously fry, turning them occasionally until all sides are golden and crusted; this genial operation should not be rushed and ought to last about 20 minutes. The more gently gilded the nuggets, the more savoury the dish will be.

Lift out the chicken with a slotted spoon and put on to a plate. Tip the chopped onion into the fats and quietly fry until soft. Introduce the garlic, turn up the heat and quickly sizzle together, stirring allium among the bits of crusted, chicken debris until all are lightly gilded. Stir in the ground spices, moderate the heat and allow them to temper in the oils for a minute or two, before tipping in the rice. Let the grains become well coated with fat by thoroughly stir-frying them around the dish, and then pour in the stock. Sprinkle over the saffron and chillies and stir them in. Then, reintroduce the chicken pieces, and push them under the surface. Bring to a simmer, put on the lid (failing a lid, clamp the pan with foil) and cook in the oven for 30 minutes.

While the dish is cooking, make the yoghurt thing. Grate the cucumber, sprinkle with a little salt and place in a sieve. Leave to drain for 20 minutes, squeeze out excess juices with your hands and mix together with the other ingredients. Decant into an attractive bowl and put in the fridge to chill.

Take the chicken and rice from the oven but don't remove the lid for 10 minutes. Once the time is up, lift the lid - inhaling as you do, the most aromatic of wafts - and take two forks to lift and separate the contents, mixing in during the process the coarsely chopped coriander.

Serve directly from the dish on to hot plates, handing around the coolant dressing of yoghurt and cucumber at the dining table

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