When I was little, my mother read to me every night.
One of the last books she read to me – before I began Reading On My Own – was What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. The book was a gift from my mother: it was a one-volume Katy trilogy. It was a very big book for a very little girl. The book was fat and the pages were wafer thin, with no pictures at all breaking up the long prose: aged seven, it felt Very Grown Up indeed. I adored it. I’ve written before about my life being punctuated by books; memories of people I love, and loved, are hidden in their pages. I will always hear What Katy Did read in my mummy’s voice; I still quake at the thought of her finding out that I occasionally leave the house with wet hair.
There is a passage at the end of the first chapter of the book which reads as follows:
She was fond of building castles in the air, and dreaming of the time when something she had done would make her famous, so that everybody would hear of her, and want to know her. I don’t think she had made up her mind what this wonderful thing was to be; but while thinking about it she often forgot to learn a lesson, or to lace her boots, and then she had a bad mark, or a scolding from Aunt Izzie.
I don’t think there is a single passage that I have read before or since that speaks to me, or of me, as much. So often I have built my own castles in the air: conjuring grand plans and dreaming schemes that would see me lauded and praised, held up and revered, be it by my nearest and dearest, or by the world at large. So often these hopes and aspirations would take form at the beginning of a holiday, with confidence that by the end of that holiday I would have completed 6-7 major life goals. By the final Sunday, they would lie in tired tatters, overtaken by one hangover, three afternoon naps, and a trip to the library. I would have failed.
A few weeks ago, I took five days’ holiday after a particularly intensive period of work. I resolved to stay at home, and use the week simply to calm down and decompress and do some cooking and reading. I was not going to be caught out again. This time, for the first time, I would not learn to tapdance, master choux pastry, read Infinite Jest, or see my extended family. I would not try my hand at calligraphy. Instead, I would embrace snoozes, and meander through a single Agatha Christie novel. I would eat cheese on toast, and maybe go to a book shop. There would be no castles built in the air, no dreaming of being famous – and consequently, no failure.
With one small exception: I decided I was going to learn how to make excellent filled pasta.
A small goal, yes, but a good one. One that I was sure I could properly achieve in the time allowed, whilst still looking elegant reading in coffee shops, and allowing sufficient scope for laziness and sprawling. I would make these perfect little parcels, and that would be my single achievement.
I made a big batch of gorgeous, dirty, winey beef and mushroom ragu. We ate it on the Monday night, content in the knowledge that this was little more than an amuse bouche for the proper celebratory dinner of agnolotti the following night. I’d done my research; I knew all about agnolotti, and pasta dough. My previous forays into pasta had been, if not excellent, then very edible. I was armed with knowledge and research and I was confident and delighted with my own plan.
The following day, I rolled up my sleeves, dusted my work top and my hands, and set about making what I was sure would be utterly brilliant pasta. I followed the recipe. To this day I don’t know why it didn’t work. But I ended up with a gritty, sludgy mixture that, like wet sand, would momentarily hold together and then fall apart. It seemed to leach far more oil than I’d ever put in. After hours in the fridge, where I put it in the vain hope that it might firm up, a saffron coloured sheen clung greasily to the clingfilm.
The next day, I rallied and returned to first principles. I looked up pasta dough recipe in Anna del Conte’s book; I didn’t bugger around with extra yolks, or semolina, or olive oil. I made it to the letter, and sure enough, had a beautiful silken dough. I kneaded it, rested it, and brought it out of the fridge. I slowly and methodically wound each piece of dough through the pasta machine, ratcheting down the gauge until I was left with broad, primrose yellow, wafer thin ribbons. I began to stand slightly taller. As I folded the delicate parcels, I started to mentally compose a blogpost in which I de-mystified pasta dough. I would write about my initial failed attempt, but then I would laugh, and you would laugh, and we would all laugh together over my successful, intuitive pasta making . I made 40 tiny parcels, not all perfect, but all pride-making, tucking the ragu carefully into them. Then I left them, gently sitting on grease-proof paper, waiting for supper time. There could still be a happy ending.
I returned about an hour later, and peeked under the paper. Only, I couldn’t lift the paper. And I couldn’t lift the pasta parcels. They were all stuck to one another. When I tried to lift one, the dough stretched in a long gluey trail. The bolognese burst forth and splurged all over the paper. They were ruined.
I picked up my keys and walked straight out of the house. I felt desolate. All was lost – not least my sense of perspective. I went to our local shop and gazed at the shelves hopelessly. After a few moments I realised I had to leave: I honestly felt like the two other customers in the shop and the shopkeeper knew what had happened in my kitchen, and were viewing me, sadly, pityingly, as a failure.
Reader, I wept. I wept on a street in Crouch End because my pasta had failed. It was a failure, and so was I.
It is not far from the local shop to my nearest small supermarket, perhaps seven minutes at a fast pace, but it was long enough for me to lose the plot entirely. I stood in front of the fridge of packaged filled pasta and felt like the world was mocking me. You can buy this stuff for £2 in a Nisa, for the love of God, but I – even with two days, a host of books, and more egg yolks that you can shake a stick at – couldn’t pull it together.
That night we ate pre-made burgers in shop-bought buns, with pre-sliced cheese. I made Sam slice the tomatoes. I snuffled on the sofa and tried to think of something jovial to say about chocolate orange scones.
That night was not the night to try and make anything. But the next day, I knew I needed to get back on the proverbial horse. I was sore and tired and, frankly, didn’t want to see pasta again for quite some time. My confidence was badly knocked. I needed a quiet dish, a reliable and easy dish, that I could put in a bowl and leave to do its thing and know – know – that when I returned to it, it would not have failed me.
That dish is my cheat’s risotto.
I make it when the thought of doing anything other than opening and closing the oven door is overwhelming, when I wobble about cooking, when I wobble about life. When all feels lost.
And I made it that day.
I did it. This is that miracle of dishes: a dish you can put together even when you feel you can’t.
First, turn the oven and the hob on: this is half the battle.
Now put a pan on the heat. Tip the whole packet of lardons in. Chop half an onion. You can do this. Add it to the pan. Tip in your rice. Pour in some wine or sherry if you have it. Don’t if you don’t. Add the stock. Wrap it tightly in tin foil, or pop a lid on it. Transfer to the oven and leave it. You don’t need to stir it, you don’t need to touch it. Just wait. Pour yourself a glass of wine if you have one, or put the kettle on and make a cup of tea. Put Masterchef on. Breathe. After half an hour, remove it.
No, it’s not ‘real’ risotto. No, it’s not authentic. But it’s delicious and simple and restorative. And it works. It worked for me. I was going to live to cook another day.
It goes like this:
All Is Not Lost Risotto
Makes: 2 generous portions plus some glorious leftovers
Takes: 5 minutes
Bakes: 25 minutes
125g lardons or smoked bacon, chopped
1 courgette, diced
1/2 onion, diced
150g risotto rice
Half a glass of white wine or sherry (I really like this with fino sherry)
350ml hot chicken stock
30g parmesan, grated
1. Heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6.
2. Fry the bacon pieces in an ovenproof pan or casserole dish for 3-5 mins until golden and crisp.
3. Stir in the onion and butter and cook for 3-4 mins until soft. Tip in the rice and mix well until coated.
4. Pour over the wine if using and cook for 2 mins until absorbed.
5. Add the courgettes and the hot stock, then give the rice a quick stir.
6. Cover with a tightly fitting lid or scrunch down tin foil, and bake for 25-35 mins until just cooked.
7. Stir through most of the Parmesan and serve sprinkled with the remainder.
8. TA DAH!
Icing on the Cake
We ate this with Marmite cake (coming soon) and slow roasted tomatoes (drizzle with a little oil and salt, then place in an oven for an hour at 150 degrees; if possible, leave them on the vine). If you have leftover risotto, you can of course make arancini: bind the risotto with a beaten egg, and shape into balls. Chill the balls, and then roll in more egg yolk and bread crumbs, and shallow or deep fry depending on your competency, confidence, and clumsiness.