When I was little, my mother read to me every night. One of the last books she read – before I began officially Reading On My Own – was What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. The book was a gift from her to me: this story held within a one-volume Katy trilogy. It was a very big book for a very little girl. It was fat and the pages were wafer thin, with no pictures at all breaking up the long prose: aged seven, it felt very grown up indeed. I adored it. I will always hear What Katy Did read in my mother’s voice. There is a passage at the end of the first chapter of the book which reads as follows…
She was fond of building castles in the air, and dreaming of the time when something she had done would make her famous, so that everybody would hear of her, and want to know her. I don’t think she had made up her mind what this wonderful thing was to be; but while thinking about it she often forgot to learn a lesson, or to lace her boots, and then she had a bad mark, or a scolding from Aunt Izzie.
I don’t think there is a single passage that I have read before or since that speaks to me, or of me, as much. So often I have built my own castles in the air: conjuring grand plans and dreaming schemes that would see me lauded and praised, held up and revered, be it by my nearest and dearest, or by the world at large.
A while I ago, I took a week’s holiday. I resolved to stay at home, and use the week simply to rest and do some reading and relaxing. I was not going to be caught out again. This time, for the first time, I would not try to learn to tapdance, master choux pastry, or see my extended family. I would not try my hand at calligraphy. Instead, I would embrace snoozes and meander through a single Agatha Christie novel. I would eat cheese on toast, and maybe go to a book shop. There would be no castles built in the air, no dreaming of being famous – and consequently, no failure.
With one small exception: I decided I was going to learn how to make excellent filled pasta. A small goal, yes, but a good one. One that I was sure I could properly achieve in the time allowed. I would make perfect little parcels, and that would be my single achievement.
I followed the recipe to the letter, and sure enough, it yielded a beautiful silken dough. I kneaded it, rested it, and brought it out of the fridge. I slowly and methodically wound each piece of dough through the pasta machine, into broad, primrose yellow, wafer-thin ribbons, which I duly folded into delicate parcels, and stuffed with ragu. I was terribly proud.
I returned about an hour later, and peeked under the paper. Only, I couldn’t lift the paper. And I couldn’t lift the pasta parcels. They were all stuck to one another. When I tried to lift one, the dough stretched in a long gluey trail. The bolognese burst forth and splurged all over the paper. They were ruined. I was heartbroken.
The next day, I knew I needed to get back on the proverbial horse. I was sore and tired and, frankly, didn’t want to see pasta again for quite some time. My confidence was badly knocked. I needed a quiet, reliable and easy dish, that I could put in a bowl and leave to do its thing and know – know – that when I returned to it, it would not have failed me.
That dish is my cheat’s risotto. I make it when the thought of doing anything other than opening and closing the oven door is overwhelming, when I wobble about cooking, when I wobble about life. When all feels lost. And I made it that day.
This is that miracle of dishes: a dish you can put together even when you feel you can’t. No, it’s not ‘real’ risotto. No, it’s not authentic. But it’s delicious, simple and restorative. And it works. It worked for me. I lived to cook another day.
Makes: 2 generous portions plus some glorious leftovers
Takes: 5 minutes Bakes: 25 minutes
125g lardons or smoked bacon
Chopped 1 courgette
Diced 1/2 onion
Diced 25g butter
150g risotto rice
Half a glass of white wine or sherry (I really like this with fino sherry)
350ml hot chicken stock
30g parmesan, grated
1. Heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6.
2. Fry the bacon pieces in an ovenproof pan or casserole dish for 3-5 mins until golden and crisp.
3. Stir in the onion and butter and cook for 3-4 mins until soft. Tip in the rice and mix well until coated.
4. Pour over the wine if using and cook for 2 mins until absorbed.
5. Add the courgettes and the hot stock, then give the rice a quick stir.
6. Cover with a tightly fitting lid or scrunch down tin foil, and bake for 25-35 mins until just cooked.
7. Stir through most of the Parmesan and serve sprinkled with the remainder.
8. TA DAH!
Icing on the Cake
We ate this with slow roasted tomatoes (drizzle with a little oil and salt, then place in an oven for an hour at 150 degrees; if possible, leave them on the vine). If you have leftover risotto, you can make arancini: bind the risotto with a beaten egg, and shape into balls. Chill the balls, and then roll in more egg yolk and bread crumbs, and shallow or deep fry depending on your competency, confidence, and clumsiness.