1. Archive

Jamie Oliver takes a relaxed route to risotto

Published Sep. 2, 2005

(ran NP, ST editions)

When Jamie Oliver, the British food television personality who is also known as the Naked Chef, goes out on the weekend in London, paparazzi stalk him. When he publishes a cookbook, as he has four times now, it becomes a bestseller. When he needs to decide whether he will accept an invitation for an appearance, one of his staff of more than a dozen helps to determine the response.

But his life as a celebrity is not always the priority. As Oliver, 28, has learned, a child's nap is sacrosanct. Daisy Boo Oliver, who is 6 months old and the younger of Oliver's two daughters, was due for one when I arrived to cook with him in his Hampstead home and, celebrity retinue or no, Oliver needed to feed his other daughter, Poppy Honey, who is 1{. And then, of course, the house needed to be quiet for the nap.

"Come on, Fluffy," Oliver said to Poppy. "You've got to eat your lunch." He fed her shell-shaped pasta with tomato sauce and freshly torn basil while Daisy looked on, then suggested we cook at the pub across the street from his home.

The pub has become a refuge for Oliver. He has taken to holding meetings and doing photo shoots there, so he can work close to home without actually working in his home. "Otherwise," he said, "I'm just in the kitchen or running around the office from dawn until midnight. We take weekends off now."

When nap time came, we left the children with his wife, Juliette Oliver, and dashed to the pub to make our own lunch, risotto. Oliver ordered himself a Hoegaarden beer with lemon, then headed upstairs to the kitchen, which is, to be generous, spare in size. The windows, which Oliver apparently likes to open even when it's freezing, opened onto a garden with a holly tree the size of a small house.

Oliver began hacking away at a large pumpkin, cutting it into large pieces, each the size of a halved pear. Over these he sprinkled olive oil, a shower of Maldon sea salt, and lesser amounts of ground pepper and coriander.

In another, smaller pan he spread peeled chestnuts (which came vacuum packed), whole sage leaves and long ribbons of bacon. Both were in the oven within minutes. Oliver has a kind of frenetic energy that lends itself to efficient cooking. In between, he likes to talk, frenetically.

"Risotto," he said. "It's not hard. It takes a bit of time and a bit of love. In life, you can't have everything in one basket."

Back at his cutting board, he began mincing celery and shallot to make a flavor base, or sofrito, for the risotto. "Okay, so I'm not Italian," he said. "So, I'm not the man you're supposed to listen to."

"But," he added, "I've tasted and listened and learned, and you get this risotto and they lift off the lid and on top of it are fillets of red snapper, wisps of fried parsnip, quenelles of spinach and blobs of sauce around the plate."

"Right?" he said, "And it looks great, but it's a bit like seeing clothes on a catwalk. Any risotto that can hold anything on top of it isn't risotto."

The sofrito and olive oil began bubbling and glistening in a deep pan. Oliver stirred as the sofrito loosened and turned first yellow then a pale green. At this point he added a pinch of salt and the rice.

"We're living in a fast-food nation," Oliver said abruptly. "I know America truly is that, but we're not far behind." He paused to pour in a healthy glassful of white wine and jerked the pan to mix it in.

Then he changed course. "If we want to whinge," he said, using the British vernacular for complaining, "there's plenty to whinge about. But we try to be just happy and have fun."

Oliver continued stirring, maniacally, all the while talking. Spend any time with him, and you begin to wonder if he talks in his sleep.

"You can cook it in 10 minutes if it's at full whack," Oliver said, meaning having a stove's burner on high. "But it'll be done on the outside and like gruel inside." Getting the rice to the right consistency is the hardest part.

"You imagine every rice is like a soldier and full of starch, and you want to ooze all that out," he said. You should do so with small amounts of moisture. As you stir, he said, the liquid on the bottom of the pan should resemble glue. If it's loose, you've added too much at once. For this risotto, Oliver used chicken broth, but he said mushroom broth could be used in a pinch.

As Oliver cooks, dishes other than the one he's making pop into his head. When the pumpkin went into the oven, he became very excited about a salad of roasted pumpkin, arugula, olive oil and shavings of Parmesan cheese.

As the chestnuts came out of the oven _ the sage toasted and the bacon rendered _ he suggested mashing the chestnuts in broth with the pumpkin for a hearty soup.

"I cheated there," he said about the vacuum-packed chestnuts. "It's one of my cheats. All over London _ I don't know about New York _ there are geezers selling them roasted. Buy a bag. It's the easiest."

Next, he plopped the wilted pieces of pumpkin into the risotto and began mashing it lightly with the back of his wooden spoon, to give the rice a little tint of orange.

"Watch its color change," he said, as he stirred. The rice turned first a peach color and then a soft orange. The mashing action also intensifies the flavor of pumpkin.

"The big boy upstairs," Oliver said, referring to God. "He always does things with cooking that are interesting." The lines down a fish, for instance, make a clean and easy way to fillet it. Many fall vegetables, such as squash and mushrooms, mimic the colors of autumn leaves. "There are too many things that are fluky to be flukes," he said.

He continued stirring the risotto, leaving some of the pumpkin chunky. He lifted a spoonful. "You see what I mean about ooze?" he asked.

A lump of butter tossed into the pot melted and was soon lost in the grains of rice. "The real key," Oliver said, "is to take it off the heat, stir in your butter, seasonings. Then you put the lid on and let it sit two minutes. That's what I learned from the old Italian birds. Lid on top, two minutes, let it relax."

In the front of the pub, we sat down on a sofa, and Oliver, dressed in jeans and a sporty blue argyle sweater, his hair twisted like a dry mop, served up his risotto, crumbling some sage and bacon over the plates, and grating fresh cheese on top.

"If I was a real chef, I'd give you warmed plates," he said.

But he's not, exactly. He's Jamie Oliver, a television chef and personality. And his risotto was just the right texture, spreading like melting ice cream over the plate.

Pumpkin, Sage, Chestnut and Bacon Risotto

1 small sweet cooking pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled, about 2{ pounds

Olive oil

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

Sea salt and ground black pepper

12 slices bacon or pancetta

2 ounces shelled chestnuts (vacuum packed are fine)

15 fresh sage leaves

4 cups chicken stock or canned broth

3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

5 small stalks celery, finely chopped

1 cup arborio rice

{ cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth

4 tablespoons butter

} cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

About 1 cup mascarpone, optional

Time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Halve pumpkin lengthwise, and remove seeds; rinse seeds, drain, and reserve. Cut pumpkin lengthwise into thick slices, and spread in a layer across a large baking sheet. (If using squash, cut into quarters.). Sprinkle pumpkin with olive oil, and set aside. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the coriander seeds until crushed. Sprinkle over pumpkin along with salt and pepper, and bake until soft, about 40 minutes.

Remove pumpkin from oven (leave on), and spread bacon over it. In a small bowl, combine reserved seeds, chestnuts, sage and salt and pepper to taste. Add tablespoon olive oil, and mix well. Sprinkle over pumpkin and bacon. Place back in oven until bacon is crisp, 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove pumpkin from oven. Scrape bacon, chestnuts, sage and pumpkin seeds onto a small plate; reserve. Finely chop about half the pumpkin. Chop other half so that it is slightly chunky; reserve.

Place chicken stock in a small pan over medium-low heat. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to very low to keep warm. Place a large saucepan over medium heat, and add tablespoon olive oil, shallots, celery and a pinch of salt. Stir, cover, and cook for 3 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high, and add rice. Stir constantly until rice is translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in vermouth until it is absorbed, 1 to 2 minutes.

Begin adding broth to rice, a ladleful at a time, stirring constantly. Allow each ladleful to be absorbed before adding next; process will take about 20 minutes. When ready, rice will be soft with a slight bite. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Remove rice from heat. Add chopped pumpkin, and stir vigorously until mixed; fold in pumpkin chunks. Mix in butter and Parmesan. Place a lid over the saucepan, and let sit for 2 minutes. To serve, place a portion on each of 6 serving plates. Top each portion with crumbled bacon, and sprinkle with a mixture of chestnuts, sage and pumpkin seeds. Add a dash more cheese. Garnish each plate with a dollop of mascarpone if desired, and serve immediately.

Yield: 6 servings.

Adapted from Jamie Oliver.