In MasterChef Australia (I’m not a fan of the British version) risotto is known as the “death dish”. The judges groan whenever a contestant confesses that he/she will be serving it. And quite rightly so, as the results are invariably sludgy, glutinous, crunchy, solid, watery, bland, or resembling something a woman in Ancient Rome might have used as a face pack.
It is often also the go-to dish for restaurants under pressure to include a vegetarian dish in their repertoire, and this is often disappointing, too, for two reasons:
1.) All too often it becomes a stodgy double cream and rice porridge. In a traditional risotto recipe there is no cream – the creaminess is achieved through breaking down the starch by stirring the grains with a good quality stock. And no, this isn’t difficult at all. Don’t believe the hype surrounding the pitfalls; it is really a very simple dish to perfect.
2.) In some unwritten chef rulebook there exists the heinous concept that risotto can only be married to butternut squash or mushrooms. It’s not that I dislike either of these, but that I’m just crying out for some more original combination.
Risotto doesn’t have to be made with rice either. I use spelt (or farro) instead for numerous reasons: it has a lower GI, has a nuttier flavour, and has a more interesting texture. It’s also a hundred times easier to cook well. Obviously, it isn’t strictly ‘risotto’, but the idea is similar.
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter (15g)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
25g (about 8 cloves) garlic, crushed
2 tbsp sundried tomato paste
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp thyme (fresh or dried)
½ tsp chilli flakes
Grated zest of ½ lemon
¾ tsp smoked paprika
250g pearled spelt (or farro)
750ml boiling water
3 tsp vegetable stock
80g toasted pine nuts
1 tsp lemon juice
Handful of coriander, to serve
- In a large pot, melt together the butter and oil. Add in the finely chopped onions and garlic, and cook over medium/high heat until the onions are soft and translucent.
- Stir in the sundried tomato paste, sugar, balsamic vinegar, thyme, chilli flakes, lemon zest, smoked paprika and a pinch of salt. Cook ingredients together for a couple of minutes.
- In a bowl, dissolve the stock in the boiling water, then pour roughly 250ml of this, together with the passata and spelt into the pot, and stir together on a medium heat.
- Stir every now then to prevent the spelt from sticking, and add the rest of the water, a ladleful at a time, at roughly 10 minute intervals.
- After 40-50 minutes, remove from the heat, stir in toasted pine nuts and lemon juice and season according to taste. The spelt grains should be soft all the way through with no chalkiness, and with some texture remaining. Most of the water should have been absorbed or evaporated so the consistency is thicker than that of a soup, without being solid, and not thin enough to pour.
- To serve, crumble the feta over the top and scatter with coriander.