December Recipe - Mushroom and Cashew Risotto

First - a note about all my recipes
 
 
My very technical term  'ish' (!) used when referring to an ingredient weight in any recipe means it's really not critical to be exact about this. A little bit more is no harm - but less may naturally mean a bit less flavour. It's whatever you have handy, just like most home cooked things - apart from baking - where being exact is absolutely key to success!  I don't stipulate 'organic' after every ingredient - but you can take it for granted that's always the case in my recipes anyway. I'm not what some journalists like to call an 'organic fascist' (how do they come up with such smugly clever 'bon mots'? - and actually- exactly what are they afraid of?) I don't insist that other people should use organic. I just know that it's better for my family and for the environment too - but you can please yourself, - the recipes will still work. 
 
I haven't used anything else but organic for nearly 40 years, since my daughter was born with many allergies. Apart from the chemical residues/possible GM cocktail you consume in much non-organic food - all organic vegetables, meat and dairy products are now scientifically proven to be far higher in nutrients like healthy phytochemicals and omega 3 fats - and I think they often taste better too. Some organic ingredients can still be hard to find but it's getting easier - and with organic sales having grown approximately 11% last year - hopefully this will continue. Occasionally, perhaps three or four times a year, I 'car share' a trip with a friend to Sainsbury's in Newry, 50 miles away, where organic goods are quite a lot cheaper in many cases. What I save on just a 12 pack of dog food pays for the diesel, and with careful planning and growing my own veg - it means I don't have to shop that often, and that's more carbon friendly too. If I use an ingredient in any recipe that may be slightly harder to find - I suggest some sources.
 
I don't believe in 'hair shirt', worthy recipes - or in eating something that tastes like cardboard just because it's wholefood and organic. Nor do I believe in sacrificing flavour! I love truly good food - it's one of life's great pleasures and nature's precious gift to us. I hope you will enjoy my recipes as much as we do.
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Mushroom and Cashew Risotto 
 
 
 
 
 
 
(Unfortunately this photograph doesn't show the risotto being quite as softly oozing as usual. The local hunt went past just as I was about to take the photos - the dogs went utterly bananas and had to be calmed down, making the place even more like a circus than it usually is - which is saying something! So I'm afraid it got cold - but having said that - it's every bit as delicious cold too. aka - 'kitchen sink' risotto - if made with leftover turkey, ham, nuts or anything else you happen to feel like throwing in instead or as well!)
 
At this time of year there are masses of recipes for cooking your turkey with all the trimmings, but maybe you don't eat meat, or could use a good way of getting rid of the left overs. I'm always amazed that some people actually throw away a half eaten turkey after Christmas Day - or after eating some cold the next day. In this house absolutely nothing ever gets wasted - every scrap is precious! This risotto is perfect either for making the luxurious centre piece of a festive vegetarian meal using really special mushrooms, or a delicious way of just not wasting food. I've always thought that risotto is real comfort food - a bit like a hug in a bowl! I've never had a perfect risotto anywhere if eating out though - no matter how good the restaurant. A good risotto is a bit like time - it waits for no one! It's something that needs constant loving attention from start to finish, not half-making ahead and finishing off when ordered as some restaurants do. Making it at home means you can eat it just when it reaches the peak of absolute perfection.
 
I've sampled some really revolting risottos over the years. Some were like thin soup with grains of rice swimming in - others served up turned out just like a sticky, glued together sandcastle of rice turned out of a dariole mould - more like hot and sticky risotto Sushi!! I've developed this recipe gradually over the years, experimenting with lots different ingredients. It was originally adapted from a recipe in Valentina Harris's wonderful book 'Risotto, Risotto', published in 1998. Before I read that book - my 'sort of' risottos were somewhat Heath Robinson affairs - a bit of everything chucked into rice cooked in chicken or vegetable stock. Not too bad - but not exactly authentic. This works every time, I would be happy to feed it to any Italian - and nothing beats the real thing!
 
My recipe is a great vehicle for getting rid of bits of any meat or vegetables, however big or small, so it's perfect for using up even small amounts of Christmas leftovers, thus ensuring that nothing gets wasted. You can throw in some chopped left over turkey, ham, any other meat, or nuts, or with celery - adding some ripe Stilton cheese at the end. Even the basic naked risotto, without any additions is delicious, if you have some really tasty stock made from turkey or chicken bones. That is soothing balm to a stressed out and overloaded festive stomach, and a great immune booster. It's what I call my 'chicken soup for the soul'  risotto - particularly if using the chicken 'schmaltz' (the fat from the top of the cooled stock) to replace the other fat - making it extra tasty. The basic recipe is easy to experiment with - so play around with it and make it your own. Most people's favourite is the mushroom version though - and it's a great standby by if like me you keep some dried mushrooms in your store cupboard for emergencies, or have a couple of packs of pre-chopped loose frozen mushrooms in the freezer. That way, you can have supper on the table in 30 mins max!
 
When it's served - a good risotto should relax slowly and softly onto the plate, glistening and oozing unctuously towards the edge, with still just a gentle hint of 'al dente' bite in the very centre of the rice grains (think softly resistant here - not chalky toothful!.  It shouldn't need a soup plate though. It will take you about half an hour or so of loving attention - but it really does pay for the TLC. I don't think oven baked risotto comes anywhere near the texture of this, because the secret is in the gentle stirring, which persuades the starch to gradually ooze out of the rice, thickening the juices and giving you that comforting, luscious creaminess. 
 
Organic Arborio rice is available from many suppliers on line, in Ireland those such as Absolutely Organic (best price), Nourish, or The Organic Supermarket, and in the UK from Buy Wholefoods Online (best UK price) or of course on Amazon. I also buy my organic nuts online - they're at least half the price and are far fresher than those on the shelves in most shops - if they smell like old cooking fat - then they are oxidised and gone off, so are then as bad for you as trans fats.. I tend to source a lot of harder to find dry ingredients on line as we live out in the country, a long way from any good supermarket which stocks organic goods. In the UK a lot of the bigger supermarkets now sell their own range of organic rice, pastas etc. and they're usually good value, as there's more competition there. Organic chestnut mushrooms only seem to be available here at present in Marks & Spencer here, or in some farmers markets. Dried ones are again available online.
 
 
Equipment:
 
You'll need a large heavy based saucepan for cooking the risotto - and a smaller one for keeping the stock gently simmering while you gradually add it in. I find a straight ended wooden or other spatula best for stirring the risotto rather than a spoon, as it's better at preventing the risotto sticking to the bottom of the saucepan. A large ladle is also handy - but you can always use a mug for adding in the stock gradually.
 
 
Recipe:
 
(Serves 4 greedy or 6 dainty people - 4 in our house needless to say!
 
 
1.5 litres or 2&1/2 pints of good chicken stock (home made is nicest but no need to feel guilty - stock cubes will work fine too - just be aware they can be a bit salty)
 
*If you don't eat meat, you can use home made vegetable stock or any good vegetable stock cube as an alternative. The flavour is just as good.
 
50g/2oz butter
 
2 tablespoons olive oil 
 
1 medium to large (-ish) red or white onion finely chopped (I prefer red but sometimes organic red onions can be hard to source in shops)
 
2 or more cloves of garlic, crushed (I use 4-6 - but then we really love garlic)
 
A small sprig of rosemary or thyme, the leaves and soft bits of stem chopped finely - any woody bits of stem discarded.
 
2 x 200g (-ish - some come in 240g,) mushrooms, sliced.
You could get away with just one pack if you're watching the budget, particularly if they're chestnut mushrooms, as they have far more flavour than white button ones. I like 2 packs though) If using dried mushrooms, re-constitute in boiling water first and then use the soaking water as part of the stock. Drain it through a sieve after removing the mushrooms, because dried mushrooms such as porcini may occasionally contain grit, which will sink to the bottom on soaking).
 
1 large glass of a decent dry white wine - Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Viognier or anything else that's drinkable - not something that tastes like vinegar, it will ruin the risotto! 
(and another one for yourself naturally! You can sip it leaning in a relaxed way, against the range/cooker while casually stirring and chatting - this always impresses the guests, but do practice it first! It rather spoils the image if you curse because you've either burned the risotto or sloshed some down your posh frock!) Some supermarkets do very good wine boxes - these are very useful for taking the odd glass out for cooking - but never use one you wouldn't enjoy drinking!
 
500g (1lb 2oz) of a good risotto rice - Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone.
 
Freshly ground  black pepper (Just has to be organic here - the wonderful aroma from freshly ground organic black peppercorns has to be smelled to be believed!)
 
Salt can be added at the end but the stock and Parmesan should be enough to season it. You can always add more salt if necessary - you can't subtract if it's too salty.
 
One or two handfuls of cashew nuts (organic have by far the best flavour)
 
Fresh parmesan grated from a block - not the stuff from a packet which tastes just like sawdust! I always keep a block in the fridge - it adds savoury 'umami' flavour to anything
 
 
Method:
 
1. Bring your stock to the boil first and then reduce it to a gentle simmer - keeping it at just barely a murmur, or it may reduce too quickly.
 
2. Melt half the butter and all the olive oil in the large saucepan       
 
3. Add the chopped onion, garlic and rosemary. Sweat gently over a low heat for a few minutes until the onion is soft and translucent, being careful not to burn it. Garlic burns easily if too hot and then tastes foul!
 
4. Stir in the chopped mushrooms and cook until soft (keeping the lid on for the first few minutes helps here - although one's told never to cover mushrooms!)
 
5. Add the wine, turn up the heat a bit, stir and wait for the alcohol to boil off
 
6. Add the rice, stir round until it's hot and shining - it takes just a couple of minutes. Season with pepper. You probably won't need salt, but if you do, add it right at the end. You can always add salt - but you can't take it away if something's too salty. If you're using stock cubes they can often be quite salty - so it's better to be careful.
 
7. Start adding the hot stock, a ladle full or two every so often, stirring gently, keeping it gently bubbling and waiting until that is almost absorbed before adding the next ladle. Italians say that risotto should almost sigh with relief each time you add some stock! Continue in this way until the rice grains are plump but still slightly 'al dente' (test a couple of grains every minute or so) until almost all the liquid is absorbed.
 
8. At this stage add a handful or two of cashews if you want to, as they take a couple of minutes to become especially plumptious. You also can add any cooked meat etc. if you're varying the recipe, being careful to stir cooked chicken or turkey carefully to avoid it breaking up and disappearing
 
9. Stir in the last of the stock if necessary, cook for another minute or two and remove from the heat, adding the last of the butter and a handful of Parmesan if using this recipe. Or add any other cheese such as Stilton or Gorgonzola to taste if making a variation. (Different makes of rice can vary in their absorbancy, I usually find I use all of the stock, but you do have to play it by ear a little) It should still be fairly loose at this stage.
 
Leave it to stand for 3 minutes. If the mixture looks to stiff you can loosen it just a little at this stage with some boiling water or stock - but it must not be watery!
 
Serve immediately. A small sprinkling of parsley looks pretty if you like it. Have everyone sitting down and waiting expectantly! It won't wait for them!

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