Courgette and Bacon Risotto

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The eagle-eyed among you might have noticed, from this week’s photos and last, that I have not been in my Orange Kitchen. This is because I was in London for the past two weeks – and the photos in these two posts are taken in either my brother’s kitchen, or at Ollie & Anna’s house, for whom the Chocolate Pudding was made.

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I had to go back to London to sort out a new visa, which was a wonderful opportunity to catch up with friends and family. Sunday lunch x2: first cooked by Ollie, delicious beef, puffy Yorkshires, and Ollie’s speciality cauliflower cheese; and second in a London pub, catching up with old friends. Beer Wednesday & curry, lunch with friends, drinks with the girls from work, (the other) Ollie & El’s housewarming party, a lazy bank holiday Monday on the South Bank – I’ve been well and truly spoiled.

And the weather – the weather was glorious! The very best of English spring/summer days: warm, but not too hot, maybe a light breeze. And is there anywhere more beautiful than London on a sunny day?

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This is the type of weather which begs for light, fresh food. My brother and I made a delicious supper the other day of a broad bean, pea, courgette, mint and feta salad, and some asparagus wrapped in parma ham with hollandaise sauce – so simple, and so delicious. Another night, I made a risotto with courgette and bacon. One of the things I love about risotto and pasta is how great they are all year round. You can have rich, dark, meaty pastas or a warm, comforting mushroom risotto in the winter, but just as delicious are the light, fresh pastas and risotto which make a feature of green vegetables.

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Courgettes are one of my very favourite vegetables. I love them any way they come – steamed, griddled, roasted, raw in a salad, all delicious in my book. They marry really well with salty little bites of bacon, and the soft, almost creamy flesh is delicious in risotto. As with so many risotto dishes, this is very adaptable – last time I made it, I included lemon and pine nuts, and this time, I stirred through some leftover feta at the end. I think it definitely needs something like lemon or feta (different as those two things are!) – something sharp and zingy to lift it.

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Courgette & Bacon Risotto 
Serves 2

  • Approx 50-75g cubed pancetta/lardons/streaky bacon cut into cubes
  • 1 Courgette/Zucchini, cut into small cubes (approx 5mm squares)
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 150-200g risotto rice (I used Carnaroli on this occasion)
  • 100ml dry white wine
  • Approx 500ml chicken or vegetable stock
  • Approx 50g feta, cubed (optional)
  • Squeeze of lemon (optional)
  • 1 tbsp freshly grated parmesan, plus more to serve

Heat a fairly large saucepan over a medium-high heat. Add the cubed pancetta, and allow to fry until fairly brown and crisp. Once the bacon is crisp, reduce the heat to low, and add the onion and garlic. I find that the fat that comes out of the bacon means that you do not need to add any oil, but take a view on this and add a little olive oil if you feel it needs it. Soften the onions slowly until they are soft and lightly browned, and season with salt and pepper, remembering that the bacon is salty. In the meantime, in another pan, bring the stock to the boil, then reduce the heat to low and keep warm.

Once the onions are soft, increase the heat to medium and add the courgettes to the pan – cook for a minute. Add the risotto rice to the pan, and stir to coat the rice in the juices in the pan. Allow to cook for another minute or two, then add the wine. Stir, and allow the rice to absorb the wine. Add  the stock to the pan a ladle at a time, and allow the rice to absorb the liquid before adding another ladle, stirring all the time.

Continue this until the rice is soft and creamy but still has a little bite. If you run out of stock, continue with water. Stir the grated parmesan, feta and/or lemon through the risotto, and check the seasoning.

Serve immediately, topped with more grated parmesan.

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Cooking with my mum – Lamb and Aubergine ragu

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I know, I know, I promised you some South African dishes, and pasta, well, ain’t. I had planned to try my hand at a few things this week, and I don’t really know why I haven’t – so for now, here’s a yummy lamb dish instead.
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For one thing, I have been starved of pasta over the past few weeks. It’s one of my absolute favourite things to eat, probably the one thing I really could eat every day – a legacy, perhaps, from time spent in Rome ten years ago, although I think I’ve always loved it. I read these diets in magazines promising miraculous results – I flip eagerly to the page, and realise, no, you have to give up pasta. In a choice between a super-svelte bikini body and pasta, pasta would win, every time.
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My brother, on the other hand, has given up eating carbs in the evening – with above-mentioned miraculous results – and so while he’s been here in South Africa as well, pasta has been off the menu. It’s a small price to pay for the wonderful holiday we’ve had together – he’s a singer, and was here with some of his singer friends for performances of Handel’s Messiah and Faure’s Requiem, among other things. Once the work in Johannesburg was done, we headed down to the Cape for a wonderful week which was largely based around eating and drinking. The days followed a fairly consistent pattern: rise, at leisure, and breakfast. Set off for the winelands, take in a tasting. Find somewhere delicious for lunch. Decide we should probably do one more tasting before heading home. Roll, slightly sozzled, back into the car for a snooze on the way home. Cook dinner all together.
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It’s pretty high on my list of all-time favourite things to do on holiday. There is something truly magical about tasting wine at the wine farm itself – looking out over the vines, with the most knowledgeable and passionate people possible sharing their wine with you. Add in beautiful sunshine, family and friends, and the fact that I can’t drive and therefore always get to drink – and you have a winner.
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Everyone else has gone home now, and it’s just me and my parents. There’s something strange and wonderful about going home to to your parents – it involves a relinquishing of independence and all its attendant responsibility which is in equal measure liberating and frustrating. Back in my parents’ home, I change from someone who cooks and cleans and washes, who gets themselves to work and social events, to someone almost entirely dependent on my parents for these things. In my defense, this is in part because I can’t drive and getting anywhere in Johannesburg without a car is nigh-on impossible (although I am willing to accept this is not really a defense…)
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As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve been very happy both to sit back and enjoy my mother’s wonderful cooking, and to cook with the rest of the group – although there have been a few occasions where I have cooked for my parents. However, even when I’ve done so, I still find myself turning to my mum for help with everything! I ask her ridiculous questions (‘Mum, is this stick of celery ok to use?’ Honestly, how have I survived thus far if I have to ask that?!) – so even when she is sitting on the sofa and I am in the kitchen, I am ‘cooking with my mum’. Not that I mind – it’s a rare treat these days, and she is so full of knowledge, I’d be a fool not to take advantage.
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This dish was the result of me being let loose in the kitchen – and I was really pleased with the results. I’d been meaning to make a lamb and aubergine pasta dish for a while, and the happy coincidence of lamb in the fridge and an afternoon to spare meant I got the chance. This version uses lamb knuckles, which I have to confess I’ve never seen outside of South Africa. It’s a great cut for slow cooking, if you can get it – but if not, any stewing lamb will do. I gave this three hours as the meat was on the bone and had a lot of sinew – if it’s a slightly leaner cut or not on the bone I’d suggest checking from about two hours, though I doubt it will come to grief from a slightly longer cooking if you have it on a slow heat. I had also planned to use minced lamb when I first thought of doing this – and I do think this would work well as an alternative if you prefer, and would also need a shorter cooking time, probably more like one hour.
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I have a love-hate relationship with aubergine – cooked well, it is hard to beat. It has a luxurious, pillowy softness that melts in the mouth – truly wonderful. However, it is so often disappointing, usually because it has been undercooked, and is therefore hard and with none of the silkiness which makes it so delicious. It also soaks up oil, so if it has been sauteed, can be overly greasy. These days, I almost invariably roast the aubergine in the oven, at least briefly, to start the process. It needs less oil than if you were to saute it, and as with all roasting it brings out the sweetness of the aubergines. It also has the advantage of meaning you can put it in the oven for 30 minutes and forget about it, which, as Delia Smith says, is ‘much less tiresome than standing over a frying pan watching them soak up masses of oil’.

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The inspiration for this recipe is the Italian aubergine dish, caponata – an aubergine stew, in which the aubergines are cooked in both vinegar and salt to give a slightly sweet-and-sour taste. The meatiness of the lamb works really well with this – and you can add more or less sugar and vinegar to either make it a feature or a background note. I like the combination of balsamic and either red or white wine vinegar, although I don’t think this is at all authentic!

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Lamb and Aubergine ragu
Prep time: 30mins; Cooking time: 3hrs
Serves 6

  • 750g/1lb 10oz lamb knuckles
  • 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt & pepper
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stick celery, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 x 400ml tin tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar (or to taste)
  • 2 tsp sugar (or to taste)
  • 1/2 tbsp red or white wine vinegar (or to taste)
  • 2 large / 3 small aubergines
  • Sprig of thyme
  • 1tbsp pine nuts
  • Freshly grated parmesan, to serve

Heat the oil in a large skillet/frying pan over a high heat. Season the lamb with salt and pepper, and sear in the pan until well-browned all over – do this in batches, if necessary. Remove the lamb from the pan and set aside.

Reduce the heat to low, and a little more oil if needed, and add the onion, garlic and celery to the pan. Cook over a low heat until the vegetables are very soft. Stir in the tomato puree and season with salt and pepper – allow the mixture to cook for a couple of minutes.

Increase the heat slightly, and return the meat to the pan, arranging it in one layer as far as possible. Add the tinned tomatoes, the balsamic vinegar, and 1 tsp of sugar. Bring the pan to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low, cover and allow to cook, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 hours (NB: you can also do this in the oven, at 150c/300F)

In the meantime, prepare the aubergines. Heat the oven to 180C. Cut the aubergine into 1 inch chunks, and arrange on a baking tray. Season with salt, pepper and a little olive oil, and roast in the oven for around 30 minutes, until the pieces are softened and golden.

When the lamb has around 1 hour cooking time to go, stir the aubergine pieces into the dish. Taste at this point and adjust the vinegar/sugar balance if necessary – bearing in mind that the wine vinegar will add more tang than the balsamic. Add a sprig of thyme and allow to cook for another hour.

Just before serving, heat a small pan over a medium heat, and toast the pine nuts until golden brown. Serve with pasta, sprinkled with the pine nuts and parmesan.

Involtini di melanzane – Sicilian aubergine rolls

Involtini di melanzane

It is now, officially, 110% Very Cold here in Boston. This morning was a cool -11C / 12F, which might just make this the coldest place I’ve ever been. On the plus side, my local friends have finally been forced to concede that it is Very Cold – talk of ‘you haven’t seen anything yet’ seems to have come to an end. On the minus side, it is Very Cold, and ‘you haven’t seen anything yet’ has been replaced with ‘this is only the beginning, there’s months of this to come’. Hurrah.

Griddling the auberines

The other plus side is that it is still lovely and sunny here – hard to believe it’s not a teeny, tiny bit warmer with the bright sun shining. We recently rearranged the furniture in our flat slightly – brought about by the need to fit twelve people around a table for dinner, we moved the dining room table and have decided not to move it back. I am now writing this sitting at the table, in the lovely bay window, in the sunshine. Funnily enough, when I imagined myself writing this blog, it was always sitting here, so it’s strange, really, that it has taken so long for it to happen.

Involtini filling

So – in a move designed to say ‘in your face, cold Boston weather’, my post today is a version of involtini from sunny Sicily. Involtini translates as ‘little rolls’, and can be made from meat, fish, or vegetables wrapped around a filling – my version uses slices of griddled aubergine as the wrapping. The slices are rolled around a filling, coated with tomato sauce, and baked in the oven – delicious, and just as good for a cold winter’s day as in summer.

Rolling the involtini

This is a wonderfully versatile dish – as I mentioned, you can use meat or fish for the wrapping (and there are some suggestions for recipes using meat or fish here, here, here and here). In addition, you can vary the filling based on whatever takes your fancy and/or whatever you happen to have in the house. One version I’ve seen includes a slice of prosciutto on top of the aubergine, which sounds wonderful – I might well have adopted this, but I was aiming for a meat-free day. When I suggested this to Noel, he informed me that he was, at that very moment, eating a carnitas burrito… Hey ho. 

Rolled bundles

In terms of stuffing the rolls, the world is your oyster – though I’m not sure I would use oysters themselves… The most ‘traditional’ filling includes breadcrumbs, pine nuts and small currants – however, I’ve seen lovely-looking versions which explore all sorts of different flavours, such as Nigella’s Greek-inspired recipe. I also think the basic premise of involtini could be used to make a sort of pasta-free cannelloni – using the aubergine slices in place of pasta, and stuffing them with, say, spinach and ricotta. Something to try in the future…

My recipe is definitely Italian-inspired, though I’ve jettisoned the currants… I also included a basic tomato sauce recipe here, though you could use a jar of passata instead, if you prefer. Most importantly, experiment with the flavours for the filling until you find your perfect balance – and let me know how you get on!

Ready to go in the oven!

Involtini di melanzane

Serves 4

Prep time: approx 30mins / Cook time 30mins

  • 2 large aubergines
  • For the tomato sauce:
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 2x 14oz/400g tins chopped tomatoes
  • A splash of wine (optional)
  • Salt & pepper
  • For the filling:
  • 100g / 3.5oz bread, crusts removed
  • 1 tbsp pine nuts
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp capers, rinsed
  • approx 2 tbsp grated parmesan, plus extra to top the dish
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 ball mozzarella, cut into 1cm dice
  • Salt & pepper
  • To serve:
  • 4-5 basil leaves

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F

Begin by preparing the aubergines. Cut each aubergine into slices lengthways, around 1cm wide. Try to slice them a consistent thickness, so they will cook evenly. Heat a griddle pan or heavy based frying pan over a fairly high heat. Brush each slice of aubergine with a little olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Place in the pan and cook for 2-3 minutes on each side, until browned – you may have to do this in batches. They do not need to be completely cooked through as they will cook more in the oven later, but they do need to soft enough to roll. Once browned, remove to a plate and allow to cool slightly.

Next prepare the sauce [skip this step if you are using passata!]. Heat the oil in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and allow to saute gently, until soft but not browned – around 10 minutes. Add the tomato puree and stir to coat, followed by the tinned tomatoes, and wine (if using). Season with salt and pepper, and allow to cook and reduce for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until you are left with a thick sauce.

To prepare the filling for the rolls, place the crustless bread in a food processor, and process to fine breadcrumbs. Place in a large bowl. Toast the pine nuts – place a small dry frying pan over a fairly high heat, add the pine nuts and toast until brown on both sides – take care not to burn them! Add these to the breadcrumbs in the bowl, along with the capers, garlic, and parmesan. Add the beaten egg and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper.

Once the aubergine slices have cooled, take a slice and place a heaped teaspoon at one end of the slice. Add two pieces of mozzarella, and roll the aubergine slice up into a tight roll around the filling, and place to one side. Continue this with the remaining aubergine slices.

Spoon around a quarter of the tomato sauce into an oven-proof dish. Arrange the aubergine rolls on top of the sauce – preferably in a single layer. If you have any pieces of mozzarella left over, dot these around the rolls, saving a few for the topping. Pour the remaining tomato sauce over the aubergine rolls, and arrange any remaining pieces of mozzarella on top. Grate parmesan over the dish, and bake in the oven for around 30 minutes, until the cheese on top is browned and bubbling. Top with fresh basil leaves, and serve.