Sunday, 2 May 2010

An unscheduled culinary rant

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I was not going to blog today. I was going to have a nice, quiet weekend off. My plan was mostly to stare into space. Then I read about the Delia Smith Risotto Scandal, as it shall now be known, and could contain myself no more.

I have never like Delia Smith's recipes; they are too didactic and unimaginative, with dispiritingly long lists of precise ingredients. I always understood there was a whole each to each thing going on, however. I loathe recipes that tell me exactly what to do; some people find comfort and reassurance in them. I prefer the more abstract school of Nigel Slater, the pinch of this, handful of that, rather than the precisely measured exactly one hundred grams in a little glass bowl approach of Delia. This was never objective criticism, but subjective preference. Besides, the whole point of Delia is that everybody you ever asked said the exact same thing: oh, but her recipes always work. (This is too utilitarian and straightforward for me; I quite like the odd magnificent failure, in the spirit of Samuel Beckett.)

Then, today, the Patron Saint of What Works was suddenly accused of making the nation gag. Apparently her new recipe for seafood risotto was so revolting that not only did the resulting dish have to be hurled into the bin but the bin bag then had to be taken to the bottom of the garden because the smell was so ghastly. (I rather love that theatrical reaction. Could they not have just put it firmly in the outside dustbin and closed the lid? I have a picture of the black bag sitting malevolently on the far edge of the lawn, quietly seeping radioactive fish stink.)

Anyway, being fair, and considering the story was in a tabloid, I thought I'd go and look at the recipe to see if this was all a storm in a Le Creuset pot.

It is, without doubt, the most disgusting recipe I have ever read. It only takes a moment to realise that it would taste awful. For a start, she recommends using a jar of ready-made French fish soup. I know those soups. Even the ones in the very posh jars that you have to go to Fortnum's to buy taste thin and metallic. But it is not the ready-madeness that is the worst sin. It is that every schoolgirl knows that a seafood risotto is a white risotto. No tomato should ever come near it. Delia compounds this inexplicable error by recommending that you should serve this horrid mess with a rouille. And sprinkle the final dish with cheese. Not just any old cheese mind, but Swiss Gruyere. Let us just pause and ponder that for a moment; let us conjure the full horror. Imagine, in your mouth, the slightly stringy texture that Gruyere takes on when it melts, its distinct, sharp flavour, bolted onto a plate of Italian rice. Personally, I do not think any kind of cheese should come anywhere near a seafood risotto, but if it is to be added, it can only be Parmesan. It takes someone with no feeling for food at all to suggest a cheese that is not from Italy.

Even thinking about this bastard combination of the glorious classic soupe de poisson avec son rouille with the beautiful simplicity of a fish risotto made me feel mildly sick. To ruin two of the finest dishes in the world by grafting them onto each other is a culinary crime of the highest magnitude. I could imagine French and Italian cooks rising up in enraged protest, taking to the barricades with meat cleavers brandished in furious revolt.

But this is not all. After the initial shock of first reading, I peered beneath the ghastliness and found that Ms Smith has not even the most basic understanding of what a risotto is. She recommends 'giving it a stir from time to time'. From TIME TO TIME??? The entire, profound, ineluctable point of a risotto is that you stir it constantly. It is one of the joys of making it; the stirring becomes like a meditation. If you do not stir, then the special short grains will not release their starch, and it is this that gives risotto its creamy, soupy, unctuous character. Without that, it is just a plate of rice.

She also makes no mention of stock. A good chicken or fish stock is the absolute foundation on which the dish is built. (I will allow a little cheating here; if you flavour with saffron and a dash of vermouth, you can get away with using Marigold Bouillon instead, because we can not all be domestic goddesses and have real stock always to hand, but that is as far as I will go.)

There are many things I cannot cook. I have no talent for mayonnaise or yeasty breads or sauce Hollandaise. I have never quite mastered the art of tarts. I would be lost if asked to whip up a spinach soufflé (it's something to do with the folding of the egg whites that always defeats me). I am not a trained chef. But one of the things I really can make is a seafood risotto. I think it is one of the most delightful foods in the world, and I only bring it out for very special occasions. It is a dream of a dish. And now bossy old Delia has come and not trod softly, but trampled all over it with her crazy boots.

Forget Gordon Brown and Mrs Duffy. This goes straight in at number one as Gaffe of the Week.

 

If you want to see the HORROR, and the outraged comments of the poor duped cooks, click here.

Even the picture that goes with the recipe is like a car crash:

Delia Risotto

This is what it should look like:

Seafood risotto

(Photograph by William Meppem.)

 

I suppose I should put my money where my mouth is and give you my own recipe. I have adapted it over the years; I can't remember whether there was once a single recipe that I took it from. I rather think I just made it up as I went along.

Choose your own amounts, depending on how many you are cooking for. I'm really sorry I can't do precise numbers, but I always do everything by sight. For four people, I use one small onion, and roughly half a box of risotto rice, which would come to about 300 grams, and a double handful each of prawns and squid. Some people like to add mussels; I do not. I prefer to keep this very elegant and simple and clean, but that is absolutely a matter of personal taste. As for the stock, I would say a big jug, maybe a litre or so. Always have too much, although if you run out you can always add a bit of hot water. No one need ever know.

So:

Very finely chop your onion. This is important, because it must melt into the risotto, almost disappearing. You do not want nasty big chunks of onion disturbing your gustatory pleasure. Fry very gently in a glug of virgin olive oil, in a deep frying pan, until the onion is translucent. This takes about ten minutes. I usually add a little chopped garlic, no more than a couple of cloves, but this is optional, and there are some chefs who think that onion and garlic are not necessary together.

Then add the rice, Arborio or Carnaroli or whichever short-grain rice you prefer. I don't want to labour the short-grain point, because you all know that risotto is made with no other variety. Swish about with the onion and oil until every last grain is glistening; a couple of minutes or so.

At this stage, I add a dash of dry Vermouth. Many recipes call for a crisp white wine, which is also lovely. I think the sharp, almost liquorishy tang of the Vermouth brings something extra to the party. I also add a good pinch of saffron. This does two things for me: it gives the rice a glorious golden cast, and it adds another subtle layer of flavour.

Stir about with a wooden spoon for another few moments. Now you are ready to start adding the stock. Chicken or fish stock do beautifully, or hot water with a tablespoon of Marigold Bouillon powder, if you are cheating. No other stock cubes work; they are too strong and greasy.

The stock should be kept very hot. I keep it in a big pan on the next hob, and add it ladle by ladle. Let one ladle become absorbed by the rice before adding another. Stir, stir, stir, gently, dreamily, with love. Long strokes, no sudden moves.

Do this for eighteen to twenty minutes. People often say that risotto takes twenty minutes; I think it takes twenty-five. The rice should have no graininess to it, but remain firm to the bite. Just taste it to check.

So, about twenty minutes in, you have five minutes more to go, and you are ready to cook the seafood. Take your big fat prawns, raw and peeled, and the squid, sliced into thick rings, and cook them quickly in a big pan over a medium to high heat, in a dash of olive oil. This really only takes a couple of minutes, just enough time for the prawns to turn pink.

Taste the rice. I sometimes add another naughty slurp of Vermouth at this stage, for more va va voom, but go carefully. Vermouth is a bruiser of a thing, and can shoulder everything else aside.

Vital now, for creaminess and depth, is a big knob of butter. Salted or unsalted is up to you, but make it good quality; this is for flavour and a glorious velvety texture. Stir it in, and mix in the seafood. Now you need to check for seasoning: you may need a pinch of sea salt. Finally, check for texture. I like my risotto quite wet and soupy, although, again, this is up to your personal preference. Just remember, it will firm up a little on the plate and you don't want it heavy and clumpish. If it is too stiff, just add some more hot stock.

Once you are happy with all elements of it, add a good go of finely chopped flat leaf parsley, or, if you prefer, half a handful of sliced basil. I know the purists say you must never cut basil, but only tear it, but I like slender threads of green for this dish, and only a knife can achieve that. This final element might seem not terribly pointful, but it does add one more delicious nuance of flavour, and I think it is aesthetically vital, as it gives a heavenly dash of vivid green to the finished article.

Sometimes, I also throw in a squeeze of lemon right at the end, just to make all the other tastes sing their song.

Put it on a big white dish, and watch your guests gasp in delight.

 

If you want a proper, grown-up recipe with exact grams and everything, Rick Stein has a version here. You will see that he disagrees with me about the addition of parmesan. So does Elizabeth David, so I might be outnumbered on this one. However, dear Jamie Oliver does insist that cheese and seafood should not be mixed. Each to each, my darlings, each to each.

JUST NOT SWISS GRUYERE.

13 comments:

  1. Brilliantly said! I've always thought of Delia Smith as That Woman. I think she reached her sell-by date ages ago. Am definitely trying it your way - your recipes are wonderful.

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  2. There's just far too much going on in her dish. I love risotto simply made - either plain, mushroom or pumpkin. You have inspired - maybe its risotto tonight with a fresh, crisp salad. xx

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  3. Yes, yes stirring is the key to a good risotto. I use the risotto as a family cooking (stirring) together idea. I treat the dish with great respect; I was beaten by the lovely Rosa Baden Powell and a leek and fontina risotto in a Masterchef final. If, my memory serves me correctly, the charming Raymond Blanc hadn't come across fontina until then. Rosa lived close to the fabulous cheese shop in Highbury.
    I don't go to Waitrose very often but was surprised to read of the Heston and Delia plot in Waitrose news.

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  4. I hadn't heard about this, living in France, but your description of this disgusting mess confirms what I've always thought about Delia Smith. I can't stand the idea of adding ready made soup, or anything, to a dish that should be freshly and simply made. Yours sounds wonderful - as good as my husband's fennel risotto which is delicious!

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  5. I'm dying with laughter over this post. As I live in Texas I only know Jamie Oliver, but I do know fine cuisine, especially Italian. I learned to cook from my grandmother,who was a southern belle who married an Italian man. She did by pinches & handfuls, as you said. I, too, would have given up on those ingredients. However, I love love love yours. Do you think we could have something in common. Additionally, I've learned
    a couple of new words today. xx's
    Marsha

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  6. Megatonlove - V kind to put up with endless ranting. I was only going to write a couple of lines and then the whole thing got out of hand entirely. It is very nice to see other Delia sceptics coming out of the closet.

    So Lovely - enchanting to think of you having your risotto and chic salad all the way across the pond.

    Special shout out to Glenland Ladybird: MASTERCHEF FINAL? I am breathless with admiration.

    chaiselongue - fennel risotto sounds so elegant and sophisticated.

    Splenderosa - SO thrilled to have a reader in Texas. This feels wonderfully exotic to me. Love the picture of the Southern belle and the Italian gentleman.

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  7. I love finding people who are as passionate about food as I am :)

    Your seafood risotto sounds delicious - think I will try soon. My staple is mushroom, containing stock, rice, onions and the biggest blackest field mushrooms I can find!

    Living with an Italian, I've learned that less is more when it comes to ingredients.

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  8. You've got to love a foodie blog that namechecks Samuel Beckett.

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  9. You see, it's hard to take Delia seriously after the diaster of her recent How to Cheat ('Take 4 packs of Asda's Best sirloin steak and 1 pack Tesco's sliced red peppers...'), so back she comes for another throw of the culinary dice to save her football club. But she seems to remain stuck in this peculiar cheat-y groove. Why not just say Waitrose fish stock - why create the hideous texture of a soup-thickened rice dish? (Is anyone else slammed back to the days of Campbell's and some rice baked in the oven?) And the rouille was always a thickener in the soup, so in a risotto would it not just curdle? And you just don't serve cheese with fish in Italy - you just don't, it's an immutable law, like Silvio's TV channels. What a mess.
    I have to say, like you and many others (funnily enough my siser and I had this disagreement in the pub last night) I've never once turned to the Delia on my kitchen bookshelves for advice. She's the last, every time, even yesterday when I was musing on cooking a hand of pork in some apple juice. But I think Waitrose may have made a boo-boo. She's become a curious caricature of herself.

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  10. Isobelle - most flattering that you want to try the risotto, especially when you live with a real Italian. Hope it passes the authenticity test.

    jffl62 - have been thinking a lot recently of the fail again, fail better Beckett quote. It reassures me when I am battling with my perfection genies.

    Jo - always so lovely to hear your expert voice on matters of food. So glad you agree about cheese and fish. Was slightly baffled to find that E David adds parmesan, when I generally think she is right about everything.

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  11. We have a Delia equivalent in New Zealand called Alison Holst. One memorable recipe of her's was mixing canned spaghetti & canned vegetables together and setting them in a jelly! I nearly puked watching her do the demonstration on her TV show back in the '80's.

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  12. ED was generally right about a lot of things but she was also Kurtz in the culinary heart of darkness, discovering amongst other wonders that Italy was regional, but also on the tightest, self-funded budget ever (no advance either) so if she had it once, she may have assumed it correct and gospel...
    I am reading ED to the unborn Peanut in an attempt to foster culinary excellence; no danger of a Delia risotto-gate there.

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  13. Your recipes are always delicious. I adore risotto. Look forward to this one! I've never used Delia either, I've never owned any scales and much prefer to throw things in willy nilly. xx

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