Cooking with seasonal produce rates pretty highly for me; yet with the dominance of supermarket shopping in our lives it is easy to just buy what you see (or want) rather than thinking about its provenance, freshness and natural season. Although I wouldn’t be without some supermarket shopping – quite frankly, I appreciate the option and price of bulk buying rice milk and oat cream – I try to buy the vast majority of my fresh supplies from local and organic producers.
Shopping in small local farm shops means that you buy and eat food that is ripe and has that “freshly fallen from the tree” flavour. You could argue that eating with the seasons adds a zen like aspect to your lifestyle: as you eat, live and flow with the natural cycles of the earth. I personally, just love the fact that when a fruit, vegetable or meat (yes, meat) is in season, it tastes so much better than anything you have had before – think asparagus bought from beside the field it was grown and picked fresh that day, or plums fallen full and heavy from their tree, or new potatoes dug up from the garden, sweet in flavour and adorable in appearance – nothing beats the intensity of fresh, seasonal produce and that, more than anything else, is enough reason enough to go, shop and eat with the seasons.
As a relation to the onion and garlic family, leeks provide many of their healing properties: rich in Vitamin C, iron and fibre, they surpass themselves as a supporting vegetable. Perfect for using in soups and stocks, the leek really lends itself as an accompaniment to roasted sausages, chicken or used in conjunction with potatoes. It being the time for leeks ( amongst many other things ) I wanted to make a dish that allowed them to take centre stage and showcase their lovely fresh, sweet flavour and I think Leek Risotto with Crispy Bacon does this perfectly.
I once read that the trick to making a perfect risotto is Love - a wonderful instruction if ever I heard one. Risotto is such a classic dish and – for me at least – a real pleasure to make: I love the process of pouring and stirring that is fundamental to its creation; it is an opportunity for me to wind down in the evening, leaning against the kitchen counter, wooden spoon in one hand, and think through my day. I always think of risotto as a rustic dish, made up of only a few ingredients and the perfect example of Italian food – incredible flavours made so simply – and so, in that sense, I think it is a very relaxed affair. But I would say that there are some rules: firstly, it is essential to add a good spoonful of butter replacement just before the end of cooking; it gives the rice a beautiful sheen and, with the omission of parmesan from the dish, pulls the risotto together. Secondly, the stock must be hot before it is added to the pan; nothing will affect the quality of cooking more than cold stock. Most importantly, risotto needs to be creamy, with a little bite to the rice and a slightly soupy consistency. There is nothing lovely about solid risotto and so, in this much at least, I think one ought to be precise.
LEEK RISOTTO WITH CRISPY BACON
400g of Arborio rice
1 litre hot chicken or vegetable stock
3 tbsp butter replacement (Pure Sunflower Butter)
4 rashers of smoked streaky bacon
The leaves from 2 sprigs of thyme
Heat a heavy based non stick frying pan and fry the bacon rashers until truly crispy. Set aside and allow to cool down slightly before cutting, or crumbling, into little pieces. Next, prepare the leeks by trimming each end and slicing the leeks down their lengths. Rinse under the cold tap, ensuring that any grit and dirt that may be trapped between the leaves is removed, then slice the leeks finely and set aside.
Melt 2 tbsp of the butter replacement in a heavy based, high sided pan and add the leeks. Allow them to soften, over a very low heat, stirring every now and then, until completely soft but not at all coloured – this is essential, the leeks mustn’t brown otherwise they begin to taste bitter.
Stir in the rice and thyme leaves and mix gently with the leeks, then tip in the first ladleful of hot stock. Stir gently with a wooden spoon until the rice has absorbed nearly all of the stock, then slowly add another ladleful and continue to stir, repeating the process, ladleful by ladleful, until the rice is plump and tender, while still retaining a little bite – this will take around 25 minutes.
When you feel, and taste, that the risotto is done, stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter replacement and season the risotto to taste. Serve immediately, poured in to bowls with the crispy bacon sprinkled evenly over the top.