Leek, Pea And Smoked Pancetta Risotto
I should preface this recipe by saying that I’m more than happy to take short-cuts when I’m cooking if the results are just as good as going the long way around. However, in the case of risotto, I make an exception. I know it seems easier to use stock made from stock cubes or out of a can or tetra-pack, but a truly good risotto is totally dependent on starting with a well-flavoured, delicious stock (which generally means you have to make it yourself) and good-quality rice. In this case I use chicken stock, which really is very easy to make and takes only a few minutes of actual work to put together. I tend to make rather a lot and freeze it in 1.5 litre amounts, so I can pull out exactly the quantity I need to make a batch of risotto.
The best varieties of rice to use for risotto are carnaroli, vialone nano or arborio. They are all plump, large-grained rices (although vialone nano is a little stubbier than the other two) that give off a good amount of starch to thicken the risotto, but at the same time absorb the stock without disintegrating so they retain a slightly chewy firmness.
Makes 4 small serves.
- 70g unsalted butter
- 2 large leeks, well washed and finely sliced
- 1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
- About 1.5 litres good chicken stock (see recipe below)
- 200g arborio or vialone nano rice
- 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
- 70g smoked pancetta, thinly sliced then cut into fine strips
- 180g peas (frozen peas are fine)
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice, to taste
- 1-2 tablespoons cream (or a tad more butter)
- 50g freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus extra to serve
- Sea salt, to taste
- a little sliced taleggio, fontina or fresh goat’s cheese, optional
- tiny parsley leaves, for garnishing
Melt the butter in a large, preferably deep-sided, frying pan (or use a large saucepan) over medium heat. Add the leek and garlic and cook, stirring regularly, for 8-10 minutes, or until they are soft and wilted.
In the meantime, heat the chicken stock in a separate saucepan until it’s very hot, but not quite boiling. Reduce the heat so it barely bubbles.
When the leek mixture is ready, tip the rice into the pan and cook it for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly, so it’s slightly toasted and coated in the buttery leek and garlic. Add a ladleful of hot stock, just so it covers the rice (it will most likely hiss and steam), and cook, stirring regularly, until the rice has absorbed the stock. Add another ladle of stock, and again let it bubble and be completely absorbed by the rice, stirring regularly (the bubbling should be relatively gentle and even over the surface of the rice). I know many recipes say to stir risotto constantly, but it’s not entirely necessary – a good stir every 20 – 30 seconds is fine. Continue to add the stock, one ladleful at a time, until the rice is done to your liking – the grains should still be slightly firm and the whole mixture a bit sloppy and creamy. Just be aware that depending on the rice you use, you may not need all the stock: what you are after is rice that mounds slightly on the plate when you serve it, but slowly collapses on itself. All up, it takes about 18-20 minutes to get to this stage.
While the rice is cooking, warm the olive oil in a frying pan, over medium heat. Add the smoked pancetta, and cook for a minute or so until it is translucent. Add the peas (straight from the freezer is fine) and toss them about until they are heated through and tender – this only takes a few minutes. Remove from heat and keep warm.
When the rice is ready, turn off the heat and stir in the parsley, lemon zest, lemon juice, cream, parmesan and salt to taste. Now mix in most of the pea mixture – if the risotto firms up a bit too much with these additions, just add about half a ladleful of stock to loosen it. (Occasionally I mix in slices of taleggio, fontina, or little nuggets of fresh goats’ cheese at the very end, just before serving the risotto.) Serve in warm pasta bowls, scatter the remaining pea mixture on top and garnish with tiny parsley leaves. Serve with extra parmesan, if liked.
By the way… any leftover risotto makes wonderful arancini – plump little balls of rice and cheese, fried until they’re crisp, golden and utterly delicious! I generally try to make sure we always have enough risotto left to make a plateful of these the following day – they’re perfect with a simple tomato salad and a bowl of mixed salad greens.
There are some rather gorgeous pans that are specifically designed for making risotto – I must admit that I’ve had my eye on a beautiful copper one for years (which costs the earth, of course!) However, until that day comes, I use a very large, deep-sided, heavy-based frying pan which works beautifully. The heavy base distributes the heat evenly, and the deeper sides allow me to stir away to my heart’s content without spilling risotto all over the cook top.
I don’t go to much fuss when I make chicken stock as I like a pure unadulterated chicken flavour. Basically all you need do to make it, is get some chicken carcasses from the butcher (many give them away or sell them cheaply) and put them into a very big saucepan. Add about 1 litre of cold water per carcass, making sure they’re completely covered in water – sit a plate on top if necessary to keep them below the surface. Bring the water to the boil, then reduce the heat to low so the occasional lazy bubble floats to the surface. Cook the stock for a couple of hours, skimming off any froth or scum that comes to the surface. When it’s ready, strain the stock into containers, leave it to cool, then cover tightly and keep it in the fridge if you are using it within 2 days. Otherwise it’s best to freeze it – it keeps well for a couple of months.