Three months of growing, milking, harvesting and fishing at Ballymaloe set me off on the culinary path I’m still following today. If the boats had a rough night, we couldn’t learn how to fillet fish. It rained incessantly all through the spring, with every drop making the dream of eating a glasshouse tomato an impossibility before our course was up. Beyond the classic culinary education one would expect from a cookery school, I learnt to be adaptable, especially when it came to the seasons.
It wasn’t long after I started working Rome, my third kitchen, that I took risotto ab initio. I’d grown up eating my mother’s Aga incarnation and taken detailed notes as David Tanis, head chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, made it at Ballymaloe, so I had a fairly firm grasp on the concept. But given the chance to start again with Domenico, my Calabrian sous chef, I let my mind go blank. We were making risi e bisi, a Roman risotto that celebrates the first fresh peas of the season. In this one dish, he taught me you can make incredible, delicate vegetable stock simply by simmering pea pods in water for fifteen minutes, and that to retain colour in fresh greens it’s best to fold them in gently, just before the rice hits the plate. Later, we went on to make a saffron version when a farmer failed to deliver vegetables, use pearl barley when our supply of carnaroli rice was running low. Had I walked in and said “Oh don’t worry I know how to do this”, these invaluable lessons would have passed me by.
Risotto provides an excellent blank canvas for a willing seasonal cook. You can wilt in bitter greens during winter, sauté thin-skinned courgettes into the base during early summer and fold in blitzed beetroot as the leaves begin to turn. It’s a willingness to listen that has enabled me to embrace seasonality: an unpredictable way of cooking that forces the chef to think on their feet and adapt to whatever nature throws their way.
Pumpkin & pearl barley risotto
Serves two for supper
300g pumpkin – I used half of a Delica
3tbs olive oil
1 white onion
2 sticks of celery
2 cloves of garlic
3 leaves of sage, finely chopped
100g pearl barley
200ml white white
1L hot stock – vegetable or chicken
Parmesan, to serve
- Preheat oven to 200⁰c
- Dice the onion and celery into as fine a size as you can bear. In a medium sized pan, warm a good glug of olive oil with the sage leaves, adding the crushed garlic, onion and celery just as the greens are beginning to sizzle. Season well with salt and pepper.
- Cover – I used a butter paper – and cook on a medium heat until translucent.
- Meanwhile peel and chop the pumpkin into roughly 2cm cubes. Toss with the 3tbps olive oil and salt, then roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes until golden and slightly charred.
- Once the onion and celery mix is translucent, remove the cover and turn the heat up. Add in the pearl barley and really toast for a minute or two, you want it gain a little colour and release a warm, nutty smell.
- Pour in the wine and bubble until reduced, then pour in two generous ladles of hot stock. The trick is to feed the risotto well to start, then keep it hungry with smaller ladles as you go on.
- Keep adding a ladle of hot stock at a time, stirring occasionally. Once the pumpkin timer goes off, tip it into the risotto and fold in – that way the colour and flavour of the roasting will merge into the barley.
- The pearl barley will take around 40 minutes to cook from first ladle to finish. Once it’s soft but with a little bite, as if there’s a little slither of fibre in the middle of the grain, it’s ready.
- Remove from the heat, add in the knob of butter and squeeze in half a lemon. Stir well and leave covered for five minutes, to absorb the last bit of liquid and flavour.
- Serve with a grating of parmesan.
Illustrations by Liv Amato-Pace