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Risotto used to be a standard part of our diet when I was growing up. It was a sort of portmanteau dish which involved frying up a few leftovers, perhaps opening a tin or two and then adding some rice which had usually been cooked beforehand. It was somewhat stodgy but perfectly acceptable, better, perhaps, than those dreaded “rissoles” (don’t ask but not a patch on toad in the hole).
A few smart London trattoria in the 1960s put us right about risotto, but it was at least another decade before most of us became aware of what a proper one should consist of. It was all about the rice – the rest of the ingredients were just there as flavouring. Moreover, the rice had to be lovingly turned in butter and onions and then stirred constantly while hot stock was slowly added, so that the starch from the rice formed a soupy emulsion with the stock.
So that was that. Now we knew. It did not stop us from overcooking the rice or overcomplicating the dish or whacking in some pretty unpleasant flavours, but at least we were informed of the rules. But the problem with rules when it comes to Italian cooking, not to put too fine a point on it, is Italians. I do not mean this disparagingly, neither do I suggest that Italian cooks do not follow rules. On the contrary, they follow rules religiously and have a strict grammar to their cooking. It is just that the rules are more varied and complicated than those of Rugby Union, Stableford golf and Mornington Crescent (an intrinsic part of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, a silly radio show on the BBC) put together. Furthermore, the rules in Lombardy are totally different from those in Piedmont, let alone Campania.
In Piedmont, they make risotto but they also boil their risotto rice and then dress it with butter, lemon juice and basil (this preparation is my favourite filling for stuffed tomatoes). In the Veneto they cook their risotto in a bewildering number of ways, sometimes coming up with risi e bisati – a substantial dish of eels and rice, flavoured with parsley and garlic – and sometimes producing risi e bisi, a soupy mix of rice and the first very tender little peas of the season.
Whereas both these dishes can be called risotto, risi e luganeghe, also from the Veneto, cannot. It is, in truth, more like a paella, since the few ingredients are cooked first, stock added and then the rice is simply sprinkled in and left to cook. Italian rice, whether arborio, vialone nano, carnaroli (which I used here) or something even more obscure, are all a little more delicate than Spanish varieties and therefore the texture is slightly different and cooking times must be faithfully observed. Sausage and rice may sound a little pedestrian but the result is remarkably light and extremely palatable.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Risi e luganeghe
The sharp-eyed will notice that the sausages deployed here are not luganeghe, being somewhat fatter than the traditional version. However, as they were every bit as meaty, well-spiced and authentically Italian, they worked very well. Your average British sausage, I fear, will not. Serves four for lunch, six as a starter.
75g fatty pancetta
300g luganeghe or similar Italian sausage
100ml white wine
750ml chicken or beef stock
250g risotto rice
A good handful of flat parsley
● Remove any rind and chop the pancetta into very small cubes. Melt the butter in a heavy casserole and add the pancetta, letting it slowly render its fat. Peel the onion and chop it finely before adding it to the mix. Let it stew gently in the butter and fat until it begins to colour. Remove the skin from the sausages, chop them coarsely and then add to the onion. Mash the meat continually with a wooden spoon to break it up and seal it.
● Continue to cook the meat until it is crisp and friable and then pour in the small glass of white wine. Bring to a boil and reduce until syrupy before adding the stock and bringing this to the boil. Skim the surface before sprinkling in the rice, stir well and reduce to a simmer. Pick the parsley leaves and chop them quite coarsely. Once the rice is cooked, check it for seasoning then add the parsley and Parmesan. Stir well, add a bit more butter if desired and serve.
Rowley’s drinking choice
The Veneto is the home of Valpolicella, once the staple of cheap wine bars and a rather thin drop. These days there are great wines being made. Here a light, easy-drinking style is called for, with lots of bright cherry fruit.
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