It’s the spoonful of gremolata that makes the medicine go down

Nutty Gremolata
Nutty Gremolata

What’s a risotto without a mantecatura, I ask you? Ask my favourite risotto chef, Giorgio Locatelli, and he would be adamant: a risotto is not done until you have taken it off the heat and beaten into it, with a wooden spoon, a mix of ice-cold cubed butter and grated parmesan. And whatever Giorgio says in matters of risotto, you better listen (sigh… in a previous life I’ve tasted the Barolo risotto at his restaurant. Divine!). I’ve met him a few times, by pure chance. Once, at Taste of London, when it was still small and quaint and the chefs themselves prepared the food. He was there with his wife, and we chatted over nduia and lardo di colonnatta on freshly toasted bread. Then another time when he was signing books at Borough Market. And the 3rd time was more planned: we had lunch at his restaurant on the day we found out we were expecting Miss C (my birthday lunch).

So how do you make a decent risotto for a vegan, then? I decided first of all to change it to a barley risotto, to get some nuttiness in there. The recipe is the same except it takes more than double the time than with rice, and you therefore need more stock to incorporate.

Miss C loves pumpkin and sage risotto, so I started by oven roasting a whole onion squash.

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Last autumn we were invited to a fancy brunch and ‘pumpkin course’ by our veg box provider, since we had just started subscribing. No such flirtatious gestures now that we are in a stable relationship. Hmpf!

But I digress. The best tip I picked up that day was that most squash et al can just be roasted whole in the oven, as is. They then become really easy to peel, the seeds are a doddle to remove and the flesh is meltingly tender.

So I got the ‘risotto’ going with some onions, deglazed with some wine, added a bit of garlic (I rarely fry garlic with onion, as the latter needs long slow cooking and the former really doesn’t once it’s been fine chopped or grated). About halfway through when the stock is being slowlier absorbed, I added the pumpkin flesh and the chopped sage leaves. Once the barley was cooked al dente, I set aside one portion for me, before adding the mantecatura to the pan.

What saved the day was that instead of the parmesan I usually and very liberally grate onto my portion, I had prepared a gremolata of sorts (a gremolata of chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest is usually sprinkled onto osso bucco alla milanese) with roasted nuts which I pounded in a mortar, then mixed with chopped garlic and lemon zest, and sage leaves instead of parsley. Oh yum!

Verdict: my audience, despite my best efforts, were not in thrall to the pearl barley version. I really liked that it was more al dente than usual. Nevertheless, plates got cleaned anyway, which with kids is a sure sign of success.

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