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Cookbooks 9: Valentina Harris

9. Valentina Harris. Every Italian cookbook worth its salt contains risotto recipes, each adding clues to the perfection of the dish, but this is my favourite comprehensive collection. Valentina is one of the Sforzas. She went to live in London to write cookbooks. Anyway, she has brought Milan to the page. Carol gave me this book twenty years ago and we have tried most of the recipes, except where the ingredients aren’t available, like truffles or frogs’ legs, or cost is prohibitive. Risotto Barolo, for example, involves borlotti beans and stewing veal in “2 (or even 3) bottles of good Barolo”. Smiley emoji. The book joins the line of those where spine has detached from text; plastic covering was a good idea. This year we think of Lombardy, which is really where rice-growing took off on the peninsula in the Middle Ages. The grains came from China (also in our thoughts), though it’s the Arabs at the time who really brought rice cooking to the Mediterranean. Italian inventiveness with ingredients has since turned the dish into a staple. Valentina’s epigraph is an old Italian saying: “Rice is born in water, but it must die in wine.” I take this to mean that we don’t drink water with risotto, the bloat factor, but also that wine is best both in its production and consumption. One of my very favourites is Sbirri, or Risotto alla Sbirraglia, its grand English name being the Risotto of the Guards of the Serene Republic. Elizabeth David includes ham and mushrooms in her version of this Venetian classic, but I think Valentina’s is closer to the spirit of the dish, which is about feeding a small army. Furthermore, she keeps it uncomplicated, so the basic ingredients together are subtle and gorgeous.

Recipe. Fry half a chopped ONION in 100 grams of unsalted BUTTER. Add half a kilo of cubed CHICKEN fillet, chicken breast is simplest, and brown in the pan. Tip 1 glass of dry WHITE WINE into the chicken and let it sizzle and soak. The RICE now goes in, about 400 grams, and is stirred until it shines. Valentina uses Vialone Gigante, but whatever risotto rice works for you. Lower the heat and start ladling a ladle at a time of about two pints of hot chicken stock. I guess this is why Elizabeth David uses a whole chicken, is for the bones &c. to go into the stock. That’s an option, though I just use stock from the shop. Valentina errs on the side of wet rather than dry with her stock, the stir taking about 15-20 minutes. Add 75 grams of grated PARMESAN, maybe some PEPPER and more butter. Remove from the heat and rest the dish, covered, for three minutes. Serve with a lovely RED or WHITE.


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