Starch choices: Food

From gnocchi to risotto, the Italians sure know how to cook their carbohydrates, says Simon Hopkinson
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For fear of sounding mildly pretentious and absurdly alliterative, this week's recipes relate to my fondness for a few farinaceous favourites. The fact that they are founded upon the Italianate way should hardly be surprising: apart from the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the Japanese, our plundering of all delicious things starchy remains firmly directed towards that country.

A fondness for Continental starch is, however, relatively novel for the timid Brit. Yes, there may have been spaghetti, macaroni and ravioli in tins for as long as one can remember, semolina pudding (from the Italian semolino), overcooked un-tinned spaghetti with a Sixties cow pat of mince on top, or even rice pudding - which, when properly made, can be very nice indeed. But all this is simply a dim and distant memory when compared with our more recent starchy discoveries.

Rice has never been so serviceable a commodity, or available in quite so many different types as it is today. There is the Italian arborio, vialone nano and - the super-darling just now - carnaroli. Then there is the Asian trio: Thai sticky, Japanese sushi and some superbly clean and fragrant Indian basmatis, with the Tilda brand remaining the finest. There is also red rice from the Camargue and Spanish calasparra, the latter saved for that monthly summer paella night with the garden primus. Typically, it is easier to find all of these in the shops now than it is to find a packet of good old ground rice for that favourite milk pudding; although, when in despair, a simple arborio will usually do the work here.

Pumpkin gnocchi

Serves 4

I have never really liked pumpkin very much, as I find it bland, watery and such a big bugger that I don't even know where to put it in my small west London kitchen. A piece of America's most famous pumpkin pie I continue to find the most loathsome slice. Roast pumpkin is a sodden excuse for roasting anything. Even when my beloved friend chef Rowley Leigh recently spent much rare Sunday morning time baking a whole pumpkin for lunch, I still found it bereft of flavour. Over the years, one Paul Bocuse has given both Rowley and I endless inspiration and a didactic approach to our oeuvre, so, once more, it was in a fashion laid down by the great man that Rowley dealt with his very large pumpkin.

In principle, Bocuse's recipe asks that a whole pumpkin be first divested of its seeds through a neat, cut-away aperture, the void then filled with seasoned double cream. Grated Gruyere and crisply fried croutons are then stirred in. The cut-away "lid" is plugged back in, the now-sealed pumpkin slid into a moderate oven and slowly baked for a couple of hours or more.

The result, that Sunday, was possibly as perfect a rendition outside of Collonges au Mont d'Or as one is ever likely to experience. But I still didn't get it. It seems to me that to get anything at all out of pumpkin, you need to bully it into total submission. The following gnocchi recipe, however, once I had played around with it, caused me consideration anew: almost a fondness for this great lumpen thing. At least, the end result is utterly delicious. Hey, what's good cooking if it ain't just a little bit of a revelation now and then?

1kg wedge of deseeded pumpkin, skin attached

350g of peeled potatoes, cut into large chunks

2 whole amaretti biscuits - four halves after unwrapping

50g freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for the table

salt and pepper

100-140g plain flour ("00" Italian, for preference)

100g butter

2 large cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

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

Cut the pumpkin into large, rough cubes and place in a baking tin. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour. Switch off the oven, remove the foil and leave in the oven for a further 40 minutes or so, to dry out. Meanwhile, steam the potatoes until very tender. Pass them through a vegetable mill (mouli-legumes) onto a tea towel or sheet of greaseproof paper to also dry out.

Cut the skin off the pumpkin, pile the flesh into a tea towel and squeeze as much juice out of it as possible. Place the flesh in a food processor with the amaretti biscuits, Parmesan and a little seasoning, and puree until smooth. Tip out on to a floured surface and add to it the mashed potato. Put a large pan of salted water to boil.

Now, little by little, sift over the flour (you will certainly need the full 100g, maybe a little more), working it into the pumpkin and potato with your fingers using a gentle kneading movement, until the mixture feels like scone dough, with a trace of stickiness, and is a uniform pale orange colour. Tear off large pieces and roll each into long sausage shapes, about the thickness of a chipolata. Cut off small lozenges with a sharp knife and put aside.

Drop the gnocchi into the pan of gently boiling water, a dozen or so at a time. Once they float to the surface, allow them to poach for a further 30 seconds or so, lift out with a slotted spoon onto a plate. Keep warm while you cook the rest.

Gently heat the butter with the garlic until the garlic is tinged a light- golden colour and the butter has started to take on a straw colour. Divide the gnocchi between four hot plates and spoon over the hot garlic butter. Hand freshly grated Parmesan at the table. Simple mushroom risotto

Serves 4

When I decided to cook this particular risotto for today, in the back of my mind was the thought that it should use an awful lot of mushrooms. Now, although this may seem such an obvious thing to say, I would like to point out that this generosity rarely seems to be the case with mushroom risotto recipes offered up to the recipe-reading public. Whether they be made with mushrooms that are wild, semi-wild or as tame and genial as a fungus can be, the quantity for four people seldom even exceeds the 120g mark. I think this is plain mean.

Apart from such unnecessary scrimpage, it has further occurred to me (after a great deal of lengthy research) that an everyday formula for a cultivated mushroom risotto remains a devilishly elusive thing. Maddeningly, you see, it seems that most British cooks - both professional and amateur - are incapable of cooking a mushroom risotto unless it includes wild fungi. What folly! Of course mushrooms and rice taste utterly delicious when there are a few reconstituted dried porcini stirred in, but it need not be the raison d'etre.

I mean, let's face it, is not this dish all about how delicious the rice is? Just because the Italians take more trouble over the foraging of their wild fungi - which, consequently, makes them more generally available to their populace - it does not necessarily mean that a perfectly nice fungal risotto cannot be made otherwise. If initially cooked with care and attention, and for some time - 20-25 minutes at least - sliced mushrooms can develop the most intense and interesting flavour.

150g finest butter

4 rashers rindless streaky bacon, cut into slivers

350g regular white mushrooms (small buttons or not so small, it matters not), thinly sliced

salt and pepper

200g finely chopped onion

300g rice (Italian carnaroli, for preference)

2 cloves finely chopped garlic

1litre, minimum, of chicken stock (Marcelle Hazan isn't afraid of the cube, so don't you be!)

5-6tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Note: Most traditional Italian recipes for risotto call for a glass or so of white wine to be introduced at the beginning of the process. I have, of late, found this to be detrimental to the final taste of the thing, the unevaporated alcohol leaving behind an acrid aftertaste. You must understand that this is purely personal, not business.

Melt 75g of the butter in a large, solid-bottomed pot and in it slowly fry the bacon until slightly frazzled and bereft of most of its inherent fat. Remove the bacon to a plate with a slotted spoon. Tip the sliced mushrooms into the pot and stir around until well coated with fat, season with salt and pepper. Cook, over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until beginning to colour. Now add the onions and continue to fry gently both vegetables together until thoroughly gilded and any trace of moisture has been completely driven off. Now reintroduce the bacon and add the rice, stirring it in among the mushrooms and onions until shiny and glistening with fat, together with the garlic. Have the stock in a pan ready alongside, good and hot.

Once the rice is nicely coated, add the first ladle of stock to the pan. Stir it in quickly over a high heat until fully absorbed (this initial absorption, by the way, is always the quickest; the rice is thirsty just now). Continue to add ladles of stock as soon as each absorption is complete, keeping the heat regular all along the way. Stir and beat the rice with vigour as the stock is added, as it is this excessive friction which allows the grains of rice to exude their outer layer of starch to the introduced liquid, forming that all-important "cream" to the risotto. When this consistency becomes evident within the risotto, start to test the texture of the rice by biting it.

Once a grain of rice chewed feels firm to the teeth (those that continue to inform you that a risotto is ready when the rice "is still a bit chalky in the middle" remain ignorant fools - the very same cowboys who seem to enjoy eating French beans that squeak when you bite into them), whip the pan of risotto from the heat and quickly stir in the remaining 75g of butter, together with two heaped tablespoons of Parmesan. Cover the pot and leave the risotto alone for five minutes. Remove the lid, give it a final, vigorous stir and spoon out on to hot plates. Hand the remaining Parmesan cheese at table. Pasta with butter and cheese

Serves 4, as a first course

I hesitate to say - yet know it to be true - that the same dilemma over our way of thinking how "exotic" should be our fungal risotto, applies to the dressing, adornment or fondling of various pasta dishes that come our way from time to time. As much as one might say that a scrunched cradling of delicious fat chips from the chippie needs little more than a shake of salt and sprinkling of malt vinegar, the same might well be claimed about the simplicity of nothing more than butter and Parmesan cheese, when it comes to complementing a dish of pasta.

For me - and I have to admit that this is a relatively recent appreciation - there remains nothing quite so pure and perfect as this embrocation to good pasta: it goes without saying that the pasta, butter and cheese should all be very, very good indeed. Cultured pearls worn with Chanel's little black dress might be an apt analogy for those who care little for quality of ingredients. With such style in mind, I have therefore taken the liberty of using the method for tagliolini al burro e formaggio from The Harry's Bar Cookbook (1991, Smith Gryphon) for the following recipe. Now, as I also happened to have access to some seasonal white truffles at the time of photographing this, it only seemed right to alternatively show the finished dish with a diamond necklace (pictured left).

300g finest quality dried tagliolini, linguine, or tagliatelle

150g best butter, softened

6tbsp freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano, plus extra for handing separately

salt and freshly ground white pepper

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to the boil. Add the chosen pasta and cook until al dente. Drain immediately. Put the butter and cheese into the emptied hot cooking pot, reintroduce the drained pasta and stir vigorously together for 2-3 minutes until everything is creamy and well combined. Season with a little salt and pepper and serve up forthwith, on to hot plates. n

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