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Mushroom risotto

Mushroom risotto

First:  I had the flu jab today.  Winter is definitely on its way.

Second:  I’m really into risotto this week, so am posting the fourth recipe since beginning this blog.  Sorry.

This particular risotto is one that you’ve probably had a hundred times:  the classic mushroom risotto.  The stalwart of vegetarian options across the land, whether it be at a set-menu Christmas lunch or catered wedding.  As a former (lapsed) vegetarian, I have had the good, the bad and the ugly of mushroom risotto ranging from an utterly beautiful one in Rome, to one at a Hampshire pub with raw mushrooms and uncooked rice.  Although it seems like an easy meat-free option for a crowd, it is incredibly easy to balls it up.

For one, cooking time is essential.  The window for achieving the perfect al dente rice is small – a couple of minutes either way can give you crunch or mush, neither of which are particularly appealing.  Also, the best risotto are cooked in relatively small batches, to serve four or six.  When you consider pan sizes and hob sizes, even in commercial kitchens, this begins to make sense.  For this reason, risotto is perfect for the home cook, which makes sense as it originated as a peasant dish.

To make a good risotto at home, you need the right kind of rice, decent parmesan, patience and a strong arm for the consistent stirring (perhaps not the best dish for after a flu jab, which always gives me a dead arm).  I always use arborio rice as it is the most widely available.  If you can get hold of carnaroli, your supermarkets are obviously better stocked than my local one.  Good parmesan can be found more or less anywhere.  The other ingredients are less important – some will proclaim the superiority of home-made stock, but I have never found it to make much of a difference and often use cubes.  Which mushrooms you decide to use depends on your own tastes.  I love porcini for their strength in flavour and chestnut mushrooms for their woodiness, but have made some perfectly decent risotto using your basic button mushrooms from the supermarket.  Waitrose do a 300g box of mixed mushrooms which includes oyster mushrooms and those little Japanese enoki ones which makes things a bit more interesting.  I have an aversion to raw mushrooms, so always cook them separately first.

Risotto is a particular kind of comfort food that seems to have been designed for those days that you had a shocker at work, missed the train and got caught in the rain on the way home.  Up the parmesan if your day has been particularly bad, and follow it up with a dessert of Nutella eaten straight from the jar with a spoon.  Bikini season is ages away, after all.

Mushroom Risotto

25g dried porcini mushrooms
350g mixed mushrooms
Olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
250g arborio rice
150ml white wine
1l vegetable stock
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp mascarpone
50g parmesan, finely grated
1 tbsp chopped parsley
A few drops of truffle oil

First, prepare the mushrooms.  Place the porcini mushrooms in a bowl and cover with boiling water.  Leave them to soak for around 30 minutes.  Drain and reserve the water.  Roughly chop and set aside.

Slice the mixed mushrooms and fry in a little oil until tender.  Set these aside also.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan, or chef’s pan, and gently cook the onions and garlic until the onions are translucent, approximately five minutes.  Add the rice and stir to coat in the oil.

Add the white wine and allow it to bubble up until it has evaporated.  Add the drained porcini water and allow it to do the same.  Be careful not to let any grit from the bowl get into the pan.

Stir in the mushrooms and start adding the stock, a ladle at a time, waiting until it has evaporated before adding the next one.  Keep adding the stock, stirring constantly, until the rice is al dente.  You may not need all of the stock.  This should take about 20 minutes.

Remove from the heat and stir in the salt and pepper, mascarpone, parmesan, parsley and truffle oil.  Serve in large bowls.

One Year Ago:  The Chocolate Behemoth



Spaghetti with mushrooms, garlic and creme fraiche

Spaghetti with mushrooms, garlic and creme fraiche

This weekend I was a little bit under the weather, so consequently have done little beyond reading from under a blanket and finishing the second series of House of Cards.  I was, however, convinced to get out of the house for a bit to take a little walk to Brockley Market for some things that, I was promised, would make me feel better.

My first stop was Mike & Ollie, whose delicious wraps are always far too good to resist.  I went for the smoked mackerel wrap with apple and beetroot, which was both beautifully autumnal and a threat to any pale-coloured clothing.  On the subject of beetroot, I also picked up a some that made their way into a rather good cake.

A fridge forage that morning yielded some garlic, parsley, a bit of creme fraiche left over from the leek and cheddar pie, a red onion and a little parmesan.  Spaghetti and mushrooms would bring this together into a meal: the former I had in the cupboard, the latter I could get from the market.  I was hoping for a box of mixed wild mushrooms, but could not see any, so settled for a bag of field mushrooms instead.

This really is an incredibly quick supper, perfect for those days when you can’t bear to spend too much time in the kitchen.  Best eaten on the couch.

Spaghetti with Mushrooms, Garlic and Creme Fraiche

200g dried spaghetti
Olive oil
1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
300g field mushrooms, halved and sliced
2 tsp finely chopped curly parsley
75g creme fraiche
1 tsp cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp finely grated parmesan

Cook the spaghetti in salted water according to packet instructions.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan, or chef’s pan, and sautee the onion until translucent – about 5-10 minutes.  Add the garlic to the onions after two minutes of cooking.  Add the mushrooms and cook until tender and browned.

Add 1 tsp of the parsley and stir in the creme fraiche and cider vinegar.  Cook gently until it begins to bubble.  Check the seasoning.  When heated through, remove from the heat and stir in most of the parmesan, retaining a little for the end.

Divide the spaghetti between two large bowls and top with the mushroom mixture.  Finish with the remaining parsley and parmesan.

Serves two.

One Year Ago:  Tarragon Chicken

Perfecting the Meatball Sub

October 9th is Submarine-Hoagie-Hero-Grinder day in the US.  For those that are unfamiliar, these are all types of sandwiches, mainly using a submarine roll.

A good sub is a thing of beauty, my favourite subs in London are from the street food van Sub Cult.  Their ‘Submarine’ sandwich, an unusual yet delicious combination of pulled pork, scallops and squid with lemon mayo is one of my new favourite obsessions.  They can be found at both Broadwick Street Market in Soho and at a pop up at the Duke of Wellington in Dalston.

If making your own sandwiches is more your thing, below is a post from my other blog, 607 Square Miles, on how to make the perfect meatball sandwich.

Six Hundred and Seven Square Miles

The meatball sub of my dreams The meatball sub of my dreams

As the summer turns to autumn and the days get shorter and cooler, I find myself with an urge to fill up the freezer for winter.  One of the first things I make is a stash of meatballs and tomato sauce which can quickly be defrosted and turned into a quick and hearty meal when it’s just too cold to leave the house.  As well as this, they can be used to make one of the greatest sandwiches ever invented: the meatball sub. 

I first encountered this Italian-American creation at the Southampton branch of Subway in the 1990s during the dark days of sandwiches when few were available outside of chain restaurants, supermarkets and what you could buy in the buffet carriage of the train to Waterloo.  20 years, a move to London and two trips to New York later, not only have I tried…

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The Best Meatballs Ever

Meatballs and spaghetti

Meatballs and spaghetti

As the days get shorter and the nights get cooler, I find that I spend more time at home than I did in the heady days of summer.  For one, pub gardens aren’t as fun if you have to put a coat on and huddle together.  Also, I find that my credit card bills from the holidays and living it up at a variety of weddings, festivals and trips to the seaside are so obscene that I reining it in seems the only option.

One thing I like to do on these cold evenings is fill up my freezer.  It’s probably the instinct for stocking up for winter kicking in, and all of a sudden I am digging out all of the Tupperware and filling it with things that I can eat later.  Hearty stews, soups and casseroles to be defrosted on a cold winter’s day when a trip to the supermarket is just too much to bear.  My two favourite things to keep in the freezer are meatballs and homemade tomato sauce.

Meatballs are a godsend as you can freeze them after they have been cooked and then, once defrosted, just heat them through in the sauce for about 10-15 minutes before serving.  A little fresh pasta and a sprinkle of parmesan and you have an excellent meal. 

I have tried a number of different meatball recipes, but these from the Polpo cookbook are my favourite.  They use pork and beef mince, which give them an excellent flavour, and the addition of a little pinch of chilli gives just a smidge of warmth.  The best thing about these meatballs is that they are cooked in the oven, rather than on the stovetop, which means that they do not have the crisp edges that frying gives and remain soft all the way through.  Because of this, they tend to break up less than other meatballs when cooked in the sauce.

The sauce is also from the same cookbook and uses both fresh and tinned tomatoes.  It too contains a bit of chilli for that extra warmth, which you can leave out or adjust to your own taste.  I have adapted the sauce from the original recipe by adding a little red wine vinegar and Worcestershire sauce to give it a little more depth. 

This recipe makes about 50 meatballs, which is more than any family can eat in one sitting.


1kg minced pork
500g minced beef
3 medium eggs
½ tbsp fine salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
150g breadcrumbs
Pinch dried chilli flakes
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Handful flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 220ºc / 425ºf / gas 7.  Lightly grease two baking trays.

In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients by mixing together with your hands until fully combined.  You can make the meatballs any size you wish, but I always weigh out 35g of the mixture for each ball.  Roll into a sphere and place on the baking tray.  Repeat until all of the mixture has been used up.

Bake the meatballs in the oven for ten minutes, turning once.  When ready to serve, poach in the tomato sauce for 10-15 minutes until heated through.  The meatballs can also be refrigerated or frozen at this stage.


Tomato Sauce

100ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ tsp fine salt
¼ tsp black pepper
Pinch chilli flakes
750g fresh tomatoes, quartered
3 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

Heat 50ml of the oil in a large pan and saute the onion and garlic until soft, approximately 10 minutes.  Add the salt, pepper and chilli and stir in.  Add the remaining 50ml of the oil and the fresh tomatoes and cook on a medium heat for a further 15 minutes.

Add the tinned tomatoes and simmer on a low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the oregano, caster sugar, red wine vinegar and Worcestershire sauce.  Taste for seasoning.  Puree thoroughly using a hand blender.

Recipes adapted from ‘Polpo’ by Russell Norman

Two Ways with Spring Greens

I am one of those awkwardly pretentious people who loves quotations.  I have a dictionary of quotations that my grandfather gave me when I was a teenager, and have  been drawing on it for inspiration ever since.  I have a number of them written in a little notebook I carry around, have them engraved into gifts and almost always write them in birthday cards:  something about age and wisdom for the younger ones and, for the older ones, something about how bloody old they are.

One of the most overused quotations is, incidentally, one of my favourite books, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  It’s been quoted in a number of terrible romantic comedies and sitcoms, but in the case of the week I’ve just had, it rings very true:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Last Thursday I organised a very fun and glitzy party that was scuppered somewhat by my waking up with the cold from hell.  This cold persisted into the weekend and on Saturday, with a red nose and sore throat, I celebrated my hen night with twenty of my dearest and, thankfully, healthy friends.  Of course, after a couple of gin and tonics start to blur your brain, it is easy to forget that you are ill until it hits you tenfold the next morning.  Let me be the one to tell you that martinis and decongestant tablets do not mix.

Since then, my cold has developed into a throat infection and a chest infection, which has rendered me more or less housebound for the past few days.  As is always the way when I’m ill, I go running for the same list of things that will make me feel better:  a box set of two or more seasons (this time it is House of Cards, which I am completely obsessed with), several bottles of original Lucozade, an abundance of tissues and as much fruit and vegetables as Ollie can carry back from the supermarket.  Ordinarily I would make my ultimate cold-buster, the Chicken ‘n’ Dumplings of my dreams, but south east London is a muggy old place right now, and jointing and stewing a chicken in my tiny kitchen seems far more unappealing than it does in the winter.

Stir fried lamb with spring greens

Instead, I have been upping my intake of green vegetables.  The wonderful thing about spring is the availability of more greens to break up the monotony of purple sprouting broccoli and kale we live on all winter.  I go crazy on asparagus, samphire, gorgeous peppery watercress from my home county of Hampshire and nettles, which I discovered a few years ago.  One of the best arrivals of the season, however, are spring greens, which have the benefit of being both versatile and cheap.  They are the first cabbages of the year and have a strong iron-rich flavour and robust texture that lends itself well to a variety of different dishes.  I have often used spring greens as a substitute for other leafy green vegetables such as spinach, pak choi or kale when I have been unable to get my hands on these, or simply have greens in the house.

Risotto primavera

Risotto primavera

I picked up a couple of these cabbages from the Co-op in East Dulwich for about £1 and had enough to make two main meals.  The first was a take on Nigel Slater’s stir fried lamb with broccoli (you can guess which ingredient I replaced) that took from my Asian storecupboard of chillies, fish sauce and lime; and the second was from Italy, a risotto primavera, which succeeded in using up some odds and ends of green vegetables I had in the fridge and freezer:  an old courgette, almost ready for the bin, a rogue celery stick and the ends of some bags of peas and broad beans lurking at the back of the freezer drawer.

The most important thing about cooking with spring greens, at least for me, it to remove the rough stalks in the middle of the leaves.  I can hardly ever get them to cook to a point where they are tender, and always end up picking them out.

Stir Fried Lamb with Spring Greens

  • 4 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 red birds-eye chillies, seeds removed (keep them in if you like it hot) and finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 350g minced lamb
  • Juice of 1½ limes
  • 1½ tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 head of spring greens, stalks removed and leaves finely shredded
  • Handful finely chopped coriander

Heat the oil in a large wok and stir fry the  spring onions, garlic and chillies for a couple of minutes until they are soft but not coloured.  Add the lamb mince, breaking up with a spatula, and cook until it is golden brown, about 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, mix together the lime, fish sauce and sugar then pour this mixture into the hot pan and stir through the lamb, cooking for an extra few minutes until some of the liquid has reduced.

Remove from the heat and check the seasoning.  Stir in the spring greens and half of the coriander and cover the pan for a few minutes until the leaves have wilted in the residual heat.  Sprinkle the remaining coriander on top and serve.

Serves two.  Adapted from a recipe by Nigel Slater.

Risotto Primavera with Feta

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stick of celery, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 300g arborio rice
  • 150ml dry white wine
  • 1 courgette, diced
  • 1l vegetable stock
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 head of spring greens, stalks removed and leaves finely shredded
  • 1 handful broad beans, podded
  • 1 handful frozen peas
  • 25g butter
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 50g feta, crumbled

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or chef’s pan and gently cook the onions, celery and garlic until soft but not coloured, this should take about 10 minutes on a low heat.  Add the rice and stir thoroughly to ensure that the grains are coated in the oil.  Turn up the heat and add the white wine to the pan, letting it bubble until almost all of the liquid has been evaporated.  Stir in the diced courgette.

Keeping the pan on a medium heat, start adding the vegetable stock to the rice mixture, a ladle at a time, stirring regularly.  Add the next ladle of stock only when the previous one has evaporated.  Keep adding the stock, stirring as you go, until you have used three-quarters of it.  Taste the rice, it should be cooked but slightly al dente.  If the rice is still too hard, repeat the process of adding stock and stirring until it has reached the consistency that you like.

Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, seasoning, spring greens, broad beans and peas.  Put a lid on the pan and leave for a couple of minutes until the butter has melted and the greens have wilted.  Stir again and serve in large bowls, topped with the crumbled feta.

Serves two for dinner and then one for lunch the following day.

*Apologies for my photography – it’s terrible.

Orzo with Courgettes, Pine Nuts and Bacon

Orzo with Courgettes, Pine Nuts and Bacon

Orzo with Courgettes, Pine Nuts and Bacon

As we pulled out of our street this morning and drove past Peckham Rye Park, I realised that it was winter.  It wasn’t the people walking by in scarves or the fact that we could see our breath that gave it away, but the carpet of frost stretching from one side of the field to the other.  Just as we started to settle into autumn, the seasons are on the change again.  As is often the way in the colder months, I go into hibernation mode – putting off leaving the house until the last minute in the morning and eagerly anticipating walking back through the door in the evening – and find myself craving serious amounts of carbohydrates.

I also become unspeakably lazy by the middle of the week.  I start off well, but the laborious commutes by underground, long days in the office, dark mornings and even darker evenings, sap away my energy.  By the time Wednesday evening comes around, I am good for little more than reading, eating and watching television – all from the comfort of the couch.  On the rare occasion I am tempted out, I go swathed in knitwear, insulated by gin and in pursuit of food.  When at home, I want meals that take no longer than 20 minutes.

Orzo has quickly become one of my favourite ingredients and I have recently taken to keeping a bag in the cupboard for those moments when you need a speedy meal.  It crosses the boundary between rice and pasta, so can be used as a substitute for either.  You can boil it and stir into other ingredients to make a speedy pseudo-risotto or ‘orzotto’, can cook it in stock as a handy side dish, or can simply stir through some pesto for a, literally, five minute meal.  As with risottos and pastas, you can combine it with any number of ingredients that you have languishing in the bottom of the fridge and create a satisfying meal.  At the very most, you might have to pop to the corner shop.  This dish used up a few bacon rashers I had leftover from the lost weekend, a couple of courgettes that were about to venture beyond their best, an old chunk of parmesan, a little leftover wine (see: lost weekend) and the end of the rocket and pine nuts I bought for the leftover roast chicken salad.  You could add in and substitute just about anything – just use this recipe as a guide for quantities and go crazy in the kitchen.

A note on bacon:  There is no denying that bacon adds a beautiful salty, meatiness to a dish that cannot be replicated by any other ingredient.  When I was a vegetarian, heaven knows I tried.  The best bacon to use for this recipe is one that has a little fat, such as streaky bacon – pancetta also works well.  If you cannot find this, lardons or back bacon will also work fine, but you may need to add a little extra oil when cooking as they do not yield as much fat.  I used smoked bacon because I prefer the taste, but feel free to use unsmoked if the mood takes you.  The equivalent pancetta or lardons to 4 rashers of bacon is approximately 150g.

Orzo with Courgettes, Pine Nuts and Bacon

  • 300g orzo
  • 4 rashers bacon (see notes above)
  • 1 large onion
  • Olive oil
  • 250ml white wine
  • 2 large courgettes
  • Handful rocket
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 50g parmesan, grated
  • 2 tbsp pine nuts

Cook the orzo in salted boiling water according to packet instructions.  Drain well and set aside.

In a large saucepan, gently fry the onion in the olive oil until slightly translucent.  Cut the bacon into small pieces, approx 1″ squared and add to the pan.  Fry until cooked, adding a little more oil if necessary (see notes on bacon above).  Add the wine to the pan and allow it to bubble away until reduced by half.  Add the courgettes and cook for around 10 minutes, until they are tender.

Remove from the heat and stir in the orzo.  Once combined, fold through the rocket, grated parmesan, salt and pepper and pine nuts until fully combined and the rocket has wilted.

Sausage and Mushroom ‘Orzotto’


The nights are gradually beginning to draw in, a little more each day. When once, just a few weeks ago, I was able to sit out on my balcony long into the evening, now I am more or less confined to the house as soon as soon as I arrive home from work.  The crisper air and dark evenings always bring with them a desire to nest, and the autumn colours in the market bring with them a particular type of food; autumnal food – shades of gold somewhere in between summer’s lightness and winter’s austerity.  Opening the fridge to these ingredients and their possibilities is enough to make you forget about the trip to the pub in favour of a warm night in.

Sausages, for me, are such a part of warming winter comfort food that, unless they are pulled, charred and smoking, from a BBQ, I find it almost impossible to eat them in the summer months.  The smoky meatiness lends itself so well to a host of other flavours that are best enjoyed whilst wearing a jumper, with the central heating on, watching all of the films you missed during the hot weather because the city gave you better things to do.  Whether accompanied by a heap of artery-clogging buttery mashed potato or plunged into a spicy bean stew, they cannot help but warm you through.  As a child, I always ate sausages on bonfire night, encased in a bun with ketchup spilling all over my gloves – they were a good and cheap way to protect us against the winter chill and momentarily distract us from the possibility of sparklers, something we would constantly harass our parents for.

This ‘orzotto’ recipe, a kind of risotto made with orzo, or risoni, pasta instead of the usual arborio rice, was adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg book – my go-to cookbook for cheap and healthy mid-week suppers.   Finding warming vegetarian suppers, whilst not a challenge, can often be monotonous, but this book draws upon a range of different cultures to provide enough meat-free meals to see you through the colder months.  Of course, I have done the unthinkable and added meat to this otherwise well-thought out dish.  This is not simply a carnivore’s reaction, after all, I was a vegetarian for almost twelve years, but instead a need to find a way to use up some sausages leftover from the weekend that were languishing in the bottom of my fridge.  On a trip to Brockley Market this weekend, I managed to procure some rather delicious sausages – venison, chilli and garlic and wild boar and apple.  The former were eaten at a late Saturday night BBQ, something my family insist on having each month, come rain or shine, but we could not manage the second packet.  Two made their way into a rather good Sunday morning sandwich, and I could not bear to let the rest go to waste.

When cooking with sausages in this way, as with adding them to the top of a pizza, I prefer to peel off the skins and use the meat in its rougher form – it is far easier to cook it evenly this way.  Some chunks of apple escaped from the sausage meat during frying, which was picked out and discarded and, although some small chunks remained, the flavour was very subtle and in no way overwhelmed the mushrooms.  As with any mushroom dish, the real beauty comes when you use a mixture of mushrooms to get a more interesting flavour and texture.  In this recipe I used a mixture of chestnut and oyster mushrooms.  Surprisingly, I did not include porcini as I often do in mushroom dishes as I thought the flavour too strong.  The orzo, when cooked properly, gives a velvety texture that it is difficult to achieve when using the various types of short grain rice preferred for a risotto, and the ritual of adding stock and stirring is also unnecessary, making this a somewhat lazy dish in comparison.  The sauce is similar to that of a mushroom ragout and would work just as perfectly with other types of pasta, particularly tagliatelle or pappardalle.

Sausage and Mushroom ‘Orzotto’ (serves two)

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Four sausages, skins removed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 500g mixed mushrooms
  • 200g orzo or risoni pasta
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 50g mascarpone
  • Salt and black pepper
  • Finely chopped parsley, to serve
  • Shaved parmesan, to serve

Put a large pan of salted water on to boil and cook the pasta according to packet instructions.  Once cooked, drain and set aside.

Heat half the oil in a frying pan and add the sausage meat.  Cook for five minutes until browned.  Add the mushrooms to the pan and continue to cook until caramelised.  Remove all of the contents from the pan on to a plate, heat the oil and cook the garlic and thyme.  Add the balsamic vinegar until it bubbles and return the sausage and mushrooms to the pan.

Reduce the heat and stir in the mascarpone.  Cook until it is just simmering.  Stir in the drained pasta and cook until heated through.  Season to taste and serve topped with the copped parsley and shaved parmesan.