Grains of wisdom

If you're making risotto, here's some inspirational advice from a master chef

With green vegetables at their best, now is a good time to make risotto. (The mushroom season is another good time.) Any Italian cookbook will have a serviceable recipe, but for inspirational advice, try Made in Italy by Giorgio Locatelli. I am not sure I would go as far as Nigel Slater, who said that Locatelli's risotto chapter alone was worth the £30 price of the book - although, as I attempted to read the two-kilo volume in bed the other night, I did reflect that such an extract would at least be something you could lift.

Not even those doyennes of Italian cookery writing, Marcella Hazan and Anna del Conte, deconstruct risotto with the attention that Locatelli brings to it. He starts, as you would expect, with the rice. Arborio, apparently, is bog-standard; Locatelli's mentor advised him that it should be reserved for soup. Vialone nano and carnaroli are the ones you want - vialone nano for robust dishes, carnaroli for more simple ones. About 400g is the ideal quantity to cook at one time, Locatelli advises: less, and the rice absorbs the liquid too fast; more, and you have trouble getting the heat to circulate evenly.

Next, the stock. It must be fresh. I have confessed in this column to the occasional use of a cube in other dishes; but only in small quantities. The stock is integral to risotto, which would be spoiled by any hint of artificiality. Warm it in a saucepan while you prepare the base of the dish.

Locatelli says that you can soften the chopped-onion base in butter in five minutes, but I think you need longer than that, no matter how fine your chopping. The onions have a tendency to catch, so you must stir them almost constantly, perhaps adding a little water from time to time. You have undercooked them if you notice them in the finished dish.

Then comes the bit that I do not understand fully. You tip in the rice, turn up the heat to medium, and stir it until the grains are coated in fat and toasted.

I can see that the contents of the pan should be hot, particularly if you are adding wine and want it to evaporate; but I am not quite sure why coating in fat is desirable if what you are about to do is encourage the grains to release their starch. Because, at this point, you add the hot stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring the rice until each portion of liquid is absorbed before adding the next. Now, another important detail - one that I had not fully appreciated before reading Locatelli's book: when the rice is cooked but still al dente, allow it to cool slightly before beating in chilled, cubed butter and cheese. That way, you get a beautifully creamy, emulsified result.

Last point: cook vegetables such as asparagus, peas or broad beans briefly in the stock, adding them to the dish at the end, so as to retain their freshness.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis