Italian food. I have always loved it but at the mo' I can't stop cooking up an Italian-inspired storm. So it was verging on the serendipitous when the lovely team at Jamie's Italian asked me to write a post about cooking Italian food at home. Nessun problema, I said. Well, I didn't actually.
So, first of all, why is Italian food so popular with families, or rather, kids? All kids love pizza, pasta, gnocchi, lasagne - even vegetable dishes are welcome when they've been given the Italian treatment. My baked aubergines (posh name Melanzane di Parmigiana) goes down really well with my lot. Maybe it's the combo of flavoursome sauces on a comfortingly carby backdrop, with the ubiquitous cheese factor - parmesan (my kids are obsessed) or stretchy Mozzerella? Maybe it's that the food is flavoursome, but simple.
If you're going to keep it simple at home you'll need two things: great ingredients and some inspiration.
For the ingredients I say always buy the best pasta you can afford. It makes a big difference for a few pennies more. The Italian brands are best, like De Cecco - stock up when they're on offer. Secondly, invest in a very good extra virgin olive oil for drizzling over dishes and salads, making pesto with - and buy a normal, non extra virgin one, for cooking with. Get good quality cheese too - good Parmesan is expensive so save money by using Grana Padano or Pecorino which is just as nice. Eat seasonally to get the best out of vegetables. Use good quality tinned tomatoes rather than fresh out of season. Get to know your butcher and use small amounts of cheap cuts like pancetta to flavour. And season well - I know we're cooking for kids, but when cooking from scratch a little seasoning is required. Italians really understand seasoning. I use Maldon sea salt.
For inspiration, I love flicking through my favourite Italian cook books (Nigellissima, River Cafe, Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Italy, Silver Spoon). For me, authenticity isn't that important for the home cook - take inspiration and make it your own. The fact that this recipe is a no stir risotto would have Italian mamas chasing me down the street with a wooden spoon. But I'm not Italian, so I'm allowed to cut corners - especially when they work as well as this.
Of course, when you're not cooking at home, and you choose to brave a meal out with kids, then I couldn't recommend Jamie's Italian enough. When we visited Jamie's Italian Manchester, the staff were so kid friendly (not surprising as JO has 4 kids so I'm sure that's part of the staff training) and the food was stunning. There aren't many places in England where you feel the same buzz as when eating in Italy itself. The food is fresh and exciting, but they celebrate the simple - and it's not too expensive either.
So, this recipe. The ingredients were gorgeous - the pancetta (smoked bacon cut into chunks, or lardons) was from our local butcher who cures and smokes his own - was unreal, so sweet - and cheap too. Making a risotto with chopped tomatoes is something I wanted to try for ages. It works brilliantly, as does the no stirring trick. This was such an easy and delicious dish. The kids went wild, both asking for more! I only wish I'd made more! On the table in under half an hour too, which makes it perfect midweek fodder.
Serves: 2 adults , 2 kids
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
250g arborio rice
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic
Glass of white wine
175g pancetta (smoked bacon cut into lardons)
40g (1 x tin) of chopped tomatoes
Chicken stock (fill the tin 1 1/2 times with hot stock)
Large bunch of basil, leaves kept whole
50g parmesan, grated - plus more to serve
Salt (go easy if using a commercial stock) and pepper
1 or 2 tablespoons of olive oil, to cook
Extra virgin olive oil, to serve
- Heat some olive oil, gently, in a heavy bottomed pan. Soften the onion for a few minutes. Add the pancetta. Let it cook slowly and get a little colour, crisping up and caramelising. Lastly add the garlic and soften that for a few minutes more.
- Add the rice and stir. Now the wine. Turn up the heat and cook off the booze for a minute.
- Tip in the tin of tomatoes, followed by the chicken stock (fill up the tin with stock 1 and 1/2 times) be careful if it's hot commercial stock, as I used, as the tin conducts heat so use a tea towel to protect your hands. If using fresh stock put it in cold. Bring to mixture to a boil. Stir, turn down to a simmer and put the lid on. Cook for 15-20 minutes. Check to see how much the rice has expanded and if most of the liquid is absorbed.
- For the last few minutes of cooking, remove the lid to reduce and thicken. (You want quite a wet texture, so if it's absorbed too much water add a splash more from the kettle to loosen.) Stir in the grated cheese and season.
- Lastly add the basil leaves, whole, removing only the big stalks.
- Serve with more cheese, a drizzle of extra virgin, some freshly ground black pepper, and a few more leaves torn on top. (I stirred in a spoon of creme fraiche into the kids' bowls to cool the hot risotto, which they loved, so maybe try that if you like a creamy tomato sauce.)
Disclaimer: Jamie's Italian paid me to write this sponsored post, but all opinions are my own. I have visited the restaurant and highly recommend it. Links to their website are nofollow.