I’ve said before, my grandmother in Wales was a great farmhouse cook – simple food made exquisitely well. She and her faithful Aga were a team remembered to this day as far from Cherrytree House as Sete and Valencia.
People would often ask her how she made such and such a dish, could they have the recipe, what was her special tip? Her reply was always the same -”I made it out of my head”.
That came to me the other evening when we found, so we thought, there was little in the house – and worse still, no canned tomatoes, so a sugo and pasta stand-by was a no go. Neither of us had the energy to go back out to buy something- we had to rely on stand-by – store-cupboard items as they were once quaintly known.
Then I remembered we had some baby clams – Italian vongole - then there was rice and I did have stock on the go from a tasting we’d done of various poulets fermier. Risotto with chicken stock, a handful of ripe cherry tomatoes I found on the windowsill – and finished with the baby clams.
Meat and seafood go well together – the Portuguese have their pork with clams cooked in the cataplana, the Basques have their chicken stewed with gamba’s, the Americans have their ‘surf and turf’ – best stop there because I have never quite got the combination of filet mignon and a lobster – all quite Lewis Carroll. Good cooking is about technique and taste – and some rules are there to be broken (within reason).
So we made a risotto built up from a friend Louise’s fresh onions from her first year vegetable garden, peeled celery, the baby tomatoes, half a bottle of rose wine and rice.
As to rice – credit where credit is due – M&S has introduced Aquerello, one of my favourite risotto rice brands. A family business who take pride in aging their rice – an increasingly rare find in today’s stretched economies where growers want a return as quickly as possible for their harvest. I just so happened to have a can on the rack with the other pulses, rices and pasta.
I’ve written and raved quite enough about risotto – it being quite one of my favourite dishes – so I’ll not talk method. It was a risotto built up from 50:50 EV olive oil and Normandy demi-sel butter. Hot stock was added a couple of ladles at a time until it was nearly cooked – then, 2-3 minutes from the end in went the clams – some in their shells and some without (another jar) - and a half ladle of their juice.
Processed vongole from Italy is clever. I was lucky enough to meet one of the major producers in the 80s. They fished their clams from the Adriatic – around Rimini and Riccione – and had developed a special process where they lightly cooked the clams in sealed steamers without losing a drop of the rich liquor inside each tiny shells. Look for Rimini or Riccione on the jar or can’s address of the maker and you won’t be disappointed. Set aside any memories of jars of rubbery cockles and mussels in heavy brine that used to be sold in English pubs – the Italian product is as close to fresh as I dare suggest.
Ask me how I made the dish and I revert to grandma – “I made it from my head”.
Time for us all to get out of our heads with more of our cooking – it’s the way of the Blue Collar Gastronaut.