I used to be a risotto person.
By this I mean the kind of person who stands serenely ladling home-made stock into a pot of small-scale-farmed, unpronounceable gourmet rice whilst sipping a chilled glass of wine and discussing the merits of using said (expensive) wine as an ingredient.
My time as a ridiculous food wanker was brought to a fairly abrupt end when this guy came along and I began trying to pass off half a pock-marked zucchini and a slice of questionable ham as dinner (because I’ll do almost anything to avoid a trip to the supermarket with a toddler who is compulsively driven to touch ALL the products in ALL the aisles. Seriously. Every. Single. Thing. Ever). Anyway, I apologise if I made you feel gastronomically inadequate in my earlier life, but it’s all come back around if that makes things any better.
We recently began eating dinner as a family, rather than feeding the kid at 5pm and ourselves somewhere between 7 and 8. The two meals thing was starting to feel wrong for a few reasons, and a shift to 5:30 dinner for everyone has been mostly great, aside from making the grown-up members of our household feel as though we eat at a time previously thought reserved only for residents of retirement homes and hospitals.
I am having one other problem with an earlier and more time-critical dinner. And it is this (be mindful of big fat first world problem alert here): even if I still harbour tendencies of food-wankerism on occasion, having to get a decent meal on the table for everyone when I don’t have a quiet hour beforehand in which to prepare it is enough to wipe those tendencies out. In fact, it’s enough to wipe out the joy of cooking altogether on some days, which makes me sort of sad. Anyone with kids will tell you thinking of and serving up a nutritious and appealing dinner every night is hard, and though I know it to be true, I was (am) still quite attached to the idea of chopping, stirring and serving in one ritualistic time period just before eating. It’s how I unwind from whatever else has happened during the day and changing that routine has thrown me more than I imagined.
Back to the risotto, though. Lest you think I’ve made today’s recipe with the aforementioned zucchini and ham, I assure you I did actually shop before I entered the kitchen. What I did not do was stand at the stove for forty five minutes in order to get dinner on the table. Those days are gone, people.
In this brave new world, one of the things I love about steam oven recipes is that they’re often quicker than their conventional counterparts. In the case of this risotto, I can quickly prepare a few decidedly un-fancy ingredients – much earlier in the day if I am organised enough – scrape them into a tray of rice and stock which has been blipping away in the steam oven for fifteen or so minutes, and produce a very passable approximation of the same dish cooked on the stove, minus some of the effort. This probably won’t win a risotto authenticity award but it also doesn’t require visits to three different gourmet food stores for special rice, diver-caught scallops or region specific Italian wine (though if you’d like to go wine shopping and bring over a bottle for sharing, I’d be just fine with that).
So maybe I am still a risotto person after all, just in a different kind of way than I used to be. I do still love a good esoteric ingredient, and I love a good fancy meal even more, but I’m often more interested in finding those things during an occasional dinner out than I am in making them at home. Let’s face it, lengthy experimental food preparation is far less appealing when there’s a tiny dictator repeatedly ramming toy trucks and trains into your ankles as you attempt not to slop boiling liquid or spitting meat everywhere.
Variations on this dish are limited only by your likes and dislikes. I’ve given the recipe for one of our favourites, but below are a few of the other common things I put in – you can mix and match whatever you like once you’ve got your head around the cooking times for each. Bear in mind the total cooking time for the rice is 20 minutes, though if you add a heaping mound of cold meat or vegetables to the tray you’ll probably need to add an extra 2-3 minutes to allow for the rice to heat up again and keep cooking. Also, we like a lot of our veg on the crunchier end of the scale so adjust accordingly if you prefer things a bit softer.
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Other things to try in your risotto:
- Pumpkin or sweet potato (cut into 3cm cubes) can be steamed for the whole 20 minutes with the rice, OR cooked earlier at 200⁰C for 20 minutes on combination steam so they get browned. I prefer the taste and texture of the combination steam option but if time is short and I haven’t done that step earlier, they will steam just fine.
- Broccoli or cauliflower florets (bite size). Add to the rice after 13 minutes;
- Fresh asparagus spears (sliced into 3-4 pieces each). Add after 17 minutes;
- Green beans (sliced into 3-4 pieces each). Add after 14 minutes;
- Sugar snap peas, snow peas, spinach or rocket leaves. Add after 18 minutes;
- Frozen peas (I use baby ones). Add after 19 minutes;
- Chicken breast or tenderloin (cut into 3cm pieces). Add after 12 minutes.
- Chicken thigh, which is our preferred chicken meat most of the time. Before I cook the rice, I combi-steam whole thighs at 180⁰C for 10-15 minutes depending on their size, then slice. Stir through the rice after 17 minutes just to heat it;
- Firm white fish fillets (cut into 3cm pieces). Add after 16 minutes, sometimes 17 minutes if the fillets are very thin;
- We aren’t big shellfish eaters but shelled and deveined prawns would be nice and should be added after 16 minutes. For a fish or shellfish version use a seafood stock if you can.
Risotto with pancetta, mushrooms and zucchini
- 2 oz unsalted butter or 2tbs olive oil
- 1 onion small, peeled and finely chopped
- 4 oz pancetta or bacon, chopped
- 1 lb button mushrooms thickly sliced
- 1 ½ cups Arborio rice
- 2 ½ cups chicken stock plus up to ½ cup extra for loosening the finished risotto
- ½ cup dry white wine brought to the boil and simmered for 2 minutes to evaporate alcohol (increase the stock quantity if you don’t want to use wine)
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1 zucchini medium, halved lengthways and sliced into 1/4"/5mm semi-circles
- 2 oz parmesan cheese grated
- Set your oven to 450⁰F/220⁰C, combination steam. If your oven has variable steam settings, use 30% steam. If not, don't worry! Just set to combi steam at the correct temperature and the oven will work out the humidity for you.
- If you’re doing the browned butter, put the butter in a large shallow cooking tray and put it in the oven for 2-3 minutes, until it melts and the solids begin turning brown (watch it closely, the line between browned and blackened is a fine one!).
- Add the onion, mushrooms and pancetta to the tray, give it a quick stir to coat everything in the butter and return to the oven for 15 minutes, stirring after 10 minutes so it cooks evenly. There should be a little mushroom-y liquid left in the tray but if it looks soupy give it another few minutes.
- Remove the vegetables and pancetta from the tray (for minimal dishes use, I just scrape it all into a bowl over the top of the zucchini, which I slice while the other things cook). You can do all of the above up to a day before you make the risotto if you like, just cover and store in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.
- Change your oven temperature to 212⁰F/100⁰C, steam setting (100% humidity). If you're going straight from a hot oven for the vegetables, I'd recommend turning the whole thing off and leaving the door open for 5 minutes, then choosing the steam setting once it's cooled a bit.
- Put the rice, stock and wine into the same tray you cooked the vegetables/pancetta in and season well with pepper. Steam for 17 minutes then add the veg/pancetta and the zucchini and return to the oven for a further 4-5 minutes, until the rice is tender but with a little bite in the centre.
- Stir in the cheese and a little more stock or water if the risotto is too dry, then let it sit for 1 minute before serving with extra pepper.
- For simplicity’s sake, if you don’t want to simmer wine to put in with the stock just leave it out altogether. Do not be tempted to just add uncooked wine as it won’t ‘cook out’ properly in the steam oven and your risotto will taste alcoholic (not in a good way). The dish won’t be as complex in flavour without it, but you’ll probably be the only one to notice. And if you have kids they might prefer it.
- You can loosen the finished rice with some extra stock or water (I do), just make sure you heat it before stirring in at the end of cooking or you’ll have sludgy, cold risotto before you can get it into your bowls.
- If you want to pan fry your onions, mushrooms and pancetta that’s just fine but I found it easier to cook the lot in the same tray I was going to put the rice in – using a combination steam setting means they come out a tiny bit frazzled on top and don’t get too ‘sweaty’ as they would if you just steamed them.
- A note about butter vs olive oil when cooking the vegetables and pancetta: just after I wrote the first draft of this post, I listened to this podcast in which the hosts discussed how delicious browned butter is in risotto. They were so right – thank you, Molly and Matthew – it gives a little undefinable something to the finished dish, and a richness you won’t get from using olive oil (oh, look at that, I think I’m crossing into food snob territory again. I just can’t help myself). I’ve retested and written the recipe to include the browned butter but olive oil is what I always used previously and it certainly isn’t bad.
- Finally, as with many steamed dishes, this one reheats beautifully. You’ll lose a little of the texture in the rice and it will certainly be more firm the next day, but it’s still good. Alternatively, you could crumb and deep fry little balls of the leftovers into arancini, if that’s your thing.
*But I don’t have a steam/combi-steam oven! I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here – there are hundreds, if not thousands, of perfectly good stovetop risotto recipes online and I don’t think I need to give you another one. If you’d like a good starting point, though, maybe try this one.