Sunday, August 9, 2009

Basil risotto with roasted tomatoes

I have to admit I've gotten into this season of Hell's Kitchen, even though it borders on the ridiculous at times. Like most, I watch purely to see Gordon Ramsay give the contestants hell for burning scallops and under-cooking chicken. In the first episode of each HK season, Chef Ramsay asks the contenders to present their signature dish. It got me thinking about what my signature dish is -- do I even have one? I love to cook, and I cook frequently, but is there one particular dish that I'd call my own (even if the recipe isn't mine)?

There's definitely one that stands out from when I first started to enjoy cooking, and I remember making it for company on more than one occasion: Basil Risotto with Roast Tomatoes from Donna Hay's Modern Classics 1. It was the first risotto I ever made, and though I tried others, I kept coming back to this one. For starters, it just looks so pretty. A row of beautifully roasted cherry tomatoes still clinging to the vine, vibrant green basil pesto, chopped roughly so you can still make out bits of basil and chunks of pine nut, all sitting atop a mound of creamy risotto. The white, green, and red brings to mind other classic Italian dishes such as the Margherita pizza or the Caprese salad (also favourites of mine).

I hadn't made the dish in a while, and on a recent night when I didn't know what to do for supper I realized I had everything I needed in the pantry for it, with a few modifications. Though I didn't have cherry tomatoes on the vine, I had a pint of grape tomatoes. And with three jars of homemade basil pesto in the fridge I wasn't about to make more, even though I do like the texture of the rough chopped version. And I have to say the finished product was just as tasty and satisfying as I remember -- one bonus being the homemade chicken stock that added a wonderful richness to the risotto. Of course the key to a creamy, not gluey, risotto is taking the care to add the chicken stock to the rice slowly while stirring constantly. It's not a dish you can pop on the stove and leave, you're actively involved the whole time. But I personally don't mind that. With a glass of wine by my side, and some music on in the background, I find risotto-making therapeutic.

So while I'm still pondering what my current signature dish might be -- maybe I just haven't found it yet! -- here's one I know I'll keep in my repertoire for years to come. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Basil risotto with roasted tomatoes

4 vines or 24 individual cherry tomatoes
olive oil for drizzling
cracked black pepper
sea salt


20g (1/2 oz) butter
1 tbsp olive oil, extra
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
5 1/2 cups (2 1/4 pints) chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups arborio rice
1/3 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

rough pesto*
1 cup basil leaves
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/3 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup toasted and roughly chopped pine nuts
1/3 cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 180C (350F). Place the tomatoes in a baking dish, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 1 hour or until soft.

Make rough pesto by roughly chopping the basil leaves and mixing with the chopped garlic, grated cheese, pine nuts, and olive oil. Set aside until risotto is done.

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook the butter, extra olive oil, onion and garlic for 6-8 minutes.

Place the stock in a saucepan. Cover and bring to a slow simmer. Add the rice to the onion, stirring for 2 minutes or until translucent. Add the hot stock, a bit at a time, stirring continuously until the stock is absorbed and the rice is al dente (about 25-30 minutes). Keep checking the rice as you may not need all of the stock (nothing worse than a soupy risotto). The rice should be soft but still have a bit of a bite to it.

When the risotto is done, stir through the Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve in bowls topped with the rough pesto and the tomatoes. Drizzle some olive oil over top and serve.

Serves 4.

*If you don't want to make the rough pesto, a dollop of a good-quality store-bought pesto will work. But the rough pesto adds a nice texture to the dish and I recommend taking the time to make it.

Courtesy Modern Classics 1, Donna Hay, HarperCollins, 2002.



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