Two Sundays ago, I sold the last bundle of books in retail for (hopefully) the last time. It’s official. I am now an ex-bookseller. Yesterday, the last, windy day of July, was my birthday. And my best friend, also an ex-bookseller, though she sensibly escaped many years earlier, flew down from Sydney for a few days of restorative dog-walking, tea-drinking and, of course, celebrating. A long and slightly sozzled birthday lunch on Friday at Vin Cellar was in order. How lucky I am.
A Saturday night in required something home-made and wintry for a dinner eaten on our laps, huddled around the fire. It’s not often that I would suggest a recipe for risotto here. Everyone has his or her own preferred style of preparation; his or her own preference for the type of rice used. Personally, Carnarolli works for me, but I refuse to enter the potential minefield of snooty rice arguments – plain old Arborio works pretty damn well too. So here, despite any misgivings, is a delectable, sloppy and oh-so-rich risotto, tinted a delicate shade of faded rose-pink. Just when you think it’s going to be too sweet, too soothing, the pungent cheese wakes your palate and the chives add a layer of freshness to each bite.
Dare I admit that I often use stock cubes in risotto? In my defense, I can enthusiastically recommend Marigold Swiss Bullion Powder, championed by many great cookery writers. So there, I’ve said it, thumbing my nose at tradition and awaiting a barrage of scorn. Do you think any less of me as a cook? While I’m at it, you might as well use the best mascarpone you can find – Elgaar Farm's organic one is beyond belief.
One final thing: if you’re concerned about animal rennet in cheese, do not use a blue unless you can be absolutely convinced that it’s okay by reading all labels. A stinky goat’s cheese will be different, but no less good.
5 ripe, firm pears
150ml of drinkable red wine
150ml of drinkable muscat or port
2 points of star anise
1 litre of vegetable stock, plus a little more
1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 red onions, chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, crushed
400g of risotto rice (use what you like)
150-200g of blue cheese, or 200g of equally stinky goat’s feta
4 tablespoons of mascarpone
1 bunch of chives, snipped
Peel the pears, cut into eighths and cut away the cores. Place in a small saucepan with the wine, muscat and star anise and bring to a lively simmer. Cook at this pace for 10 minutes, then fish out and discard the star anise and set the pears in their cooking liquor aside.
Heat the stock or water in another saucepan over a very gentle heat and keep warm.
Melt the butter and oil together in a large, heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion and fry until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and fry for 30 seconds before tipping in the rice, stirring constantly, until the grains are well coated in the fat. Lower the heat. Pour in the stock, one ladleful at a time, stirring often and only adding more when the last lot is absorbed. Pour in the pears and their cooking liquor and gently stir until the grains are perfectly cooked.
Serve in bowls, sprinkle with a generous showering of chives and top each serving with a tablespoon of mascarpone. Grind over some pepper and pass the grinder around for others to add a little more.