Call me biased, but I reckon that the secret weapon the great chefs never mention is booze. They bang on about how they use only the freshest ingredients bought at 5am in sub-zero temperatures and they bend your ear about the late hours and boot-camp training in kitchens from hell. But they never say, oh I couldn’t do it without the booze. They couldn’t, though.
I’m not talking about cook’s nips - the stuff they try not to get sloshed on when they’re stressed out in the kitchen. I’m talking about the wines, spirits and fortified liquids they use everyday to marinate this, flambé that and simmer the other. I don’t know why they never mention them, but I have a suspicion that it’s because it’s all so easy. If you’ve got good ingredients, but limited time or technique, the simplest way to give class to your cooking is to use booze.
But you must choose it and use it wisely. My father once made wine soup on Boxing Day. None of us has ever forgotten it, though, believe me, we try to. On that note, let’s go to this week’s recipes, all of which rely on wine and which I hope you’ll find memorable for the right reasons.
This series was originally published in the Sunday Times in one feature, but on the blog I will be breaking it up into individual recipes, over the course of a month. Spirits, liqueurs and fortified wines will follow next month.
Risotto would be my desert-island dish. Well, okay, not the only one and it might not be this one – I’d be hard-pushed to forego porcini and truffles – but this unusual, subtly flavoured variation is up there with the best. As for the wine, this is where I come over all bossy: you must use white. I know about red wine risottos: I’ve been there and, no matter how good, they’re never as good as the classic white version. The quality and style of the wine also counts more than usual. You don’t want anything too acid (sauvignon blanc is risky) or too oaky (chardonnay can be hit and miss); Italian pinot grigio or Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne are ideal. You can also use Noilly Prat or other dry white vermouth, but use less - about 75ml. When it comes to the onions, I’m no purist. Red onions colour the result slightly, but they’re sweet-tasting and they cook more quickly and reliably. So it’s white wine and red onions, with white wine to drink.
1 medium red onion, peeled and finely chopped
Half a medium fennel bulb, finely chopped
100g butter, preferably unsalted
250g Arborio, Canaroli or Vialone Nano rice
Glass of dry white wine (125ml)
1.2 litres of very hot stock (preferably home-made chicken)
An extra 50g butter (optional)
Dill or fennel fronds, finely chopped (optional)
Melt the butter in a thick-based pan. Cook the onion and fennel gently (they mustn’t catch) until the onion is soft. This can easily take 15 minutes. Stir in the rice, coating all the grains with butter. Stir in the wine and cook until it has been absorbed.
Add a ladleful of stock and when it has been absorbed, add another ladleful and so on. After 20 minutes, you should have used most of the stock. Taste the risotto. If the rice isn’t ready, carry on cooking it, adding recently boiled water if you run out of stock.
When it’s done, add seasoning as necessary (it will depend on your stock and butter) and stir in the extra butter if using. Either grate in 75g of Parmesan and stir, or grate the cheese over each serving. If you want to make it look pretty, garnish abstemiously with finely chopped dill or fennel fronds.