Whenever we handle food we are connecting with it. Sometimes, when we are chopping or grating, or beating with a whisk, the connection is almost violent. Other times, such as when we are rubbing the soil off a freshly dug potato with a dirty thumb or cradling a fragrant melon to our nose, the connection is entirely peaceful.
When we stand at the stove and stir, we are connecting even more deeply. It is not just about getting ingredients to amalgamate and cohere. It is not simply about getting something to work. It is as if we are stirring something of ourselves into the food, a benevolence, a feeling of warmth and affection towards those we are cooking for. The way I see it, you are not just stirring warm, aromatic stock into a risotto, you are stirring in a love for the people who will eat it.
I am often asked whether it is really necessary to constantly stir a risotto. I invariably say yes ... almost. The point is to encourage every grain of rice to cook evenly. If you leave them in one place, those at the bottom of the pan, nearest the heat, will cook more quickly than those sitting on top. Stirring continuously gives all the rice a chance to plump up with stock evenly.
As the risotto moves towards its final addition of butter and cheese, I try to think of myself as less of a slave to it, more as someone giving the rice a hand to end its days as a perfect thing rather than as a story that could have ended better. I do make the salad, lay the table, hold the phone to my ear, but not much else. Anything more than that and I am not giving the rice the attention it needs.
There are few moments in the kitchen I treasure more than that when the door to the garden is open and I can stand at the cooker stirring a pan of sweet custard. This is not something I would recommend to anyone in a hurry. This is something on which to focus all your attention, to turn the pale wooden spoon - so much kinder on the food than the hard edges of metal - around the pan slowly, tenderly, watching everything come together.
Custard is demanding. Turn your back and you will have scrambled eggs quicker than you can say toast. Custard needs to be constantly moved around the pan, and more importantly, prevented from lurking in the corner where the base and sides of the pan meet. As I mix the egg, milk and sugar slowly together I make certain that I get right down into the corners and don't just swish about near the surface.
Gentle cooking brings with it a peacefulness that can be as de-stressing as a massage. It is just finding the moment. In the mad rush that is all too often the case in getting something on the table for the assembled hungry hordes, it is worth trying to find a way of keeping something for yourself. A piece of cooking that is therapeutic rather than hard labour. Stirring, with a treasured, much-used wooden spoon, at the right time can be such a moment.
Ah, the right spoon. I have just a couple, wooden, old as the hills, both of which could tell a few stories. One is kept purely for sweet things - custard, fools, anything that has no strong flavours. Its dashing pink tone is due to having been left sitting in a summer-pudding mixture a year or two ago, and a lesson learned.
The other one smells of wood, onions and garlic. It has been yellow from turmeric-spiked curries, green from spinach soup, orange from chorizo stew. It spends much time sitting calmly across the edge of a bubbling pot, slowly taking up the heart and soul of the food it has helped to bring together.
A spring vegetable risotto
300g shelled broad beans
1 small onion
12 asparagus spears (not too thick)
300g Carnaroli rice
1 glass of white wine
1.5 litres of chicken stock
a little lemon juice (½ a lemon, to taste)
50g cold butter
2 tbsp chopped flat-leaved parsley
75g freshly grated Pecorino or Parmesan
Cook the broad beans in deep, lightly salted water then drain and set aside. Unless the beans are very small, you may want to pop them from their skins. The choice is yours. Cut the asparagus into short lengths.
Melt the butter in a heavy-based pan, peel and finely chop the onion, then leave to cook in the butter until it is soft but shows no sign of browning. Tip in the asparagus stalks, but retain the tips to add later (they will take less cooking), then add the rice, stirring to coat in the butter. Once the rice is warmed through and shining with butter, pour in the wine. Leave to evaporate, stirring occasionally.
Little by little add the hot stock, stirring pretty much continuously, adding more only when each addition of stock has been absorbed by the rice. I tend to do it one ladle at a time. After 10 minutes' cooking, add the asparagus tips and the cooked broad beans.
Stir almost continuously, adding the stock as and when you need to. I try to never let the rice dry out, keeping it at a sloppy consistency, adding more stock as it is taken up by the rice. The rice should be ready in 18 to 20 minutes.
Check the rice for tenderness - it should still have a bit of bite. Squeeze in the lemon. Cut the cold butter into cubes and fold into the rice with the parsley and cheese. Serve.
Rhubarb custard fool
You can make a fool without custard, but I prefer it with - especially if you mix the softened fruit and chilled custard loosely, so that they come together in the mouth rather than in the dish. This version is creamy without being cloying, and has more than a passing resemblance to that classic nursery pudding, rhubarb and custard. Serves 4.
240ml double cream
1 vanilla pod
3 large egg yolks
80g caster sugar
2 tbsp caster sugar
the juice of a large orange (about 150ml)
1 tbsp shelled pistachios
Make the custard: put the cream into a saucepan, add the vanilla pod and bring the cream slowly to the boil. As soon as the cream approaches the boil, but before it actually starts to rise up the sides of the pan, turn off the heat.
Meanwhile beat the egg yolks with the caster sugar till pale, thick and creamy. Remove the vanilla pod from the cream (rinse and use again), then pour the cream on to the creamed eggs and sugar and beat gently to mix. Rinse the saucepan and dry it, then return the custard to the pan.
Stir the custard over a gentle heat until it starts to thicken. I don't honestly think you can do anything else at the same time - if you fail to concentrate or allow the mixture to get too hot, it will curdle. As the custard starts to feel heavy on the spoon, remove it from the heat and leave to cool covered with a piece of clingfilm pressed gently on to its surface. (I put some cold water in the sink and put the saucepan of custard in it as soon I take it off the heat, then stir regularly as it cools. That way it doesn't curdle.)
Trim the rhubarb, discarding the leaves, and cut into short lengths. Put into a steel or enamelled saucepan (not aluminium) with the sugar and orange juice. Simmer gently for 15 minutes or so, till the rhubarb is tender and on the verge of collapse. Mash with a fork, then leave it to cool.
Fold the poached rhubarb, tenderly and somewhat incompletely, into the cold custard so that the fruit runs through the custard in streaks. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer, stirring it gently if it has separated. Spoon into wine glasses or small dishes and top with the chopped pistachios. I find the crunch of nuts essential.