Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fool’s marigold – winter risotto, with mushrooms and leeks

“Winter tarragon ... is more often than not incorrectly sold to the unsuspecting as French tarragon”.* I, reckless and naive buyer of herbs, may have unwittingly stumbled upon a fake-tarragon fencing racket.

Over indulgence at the market had led to a basket full of winter root vegetables, brassicas and herbs. In amongst more purple radicchio, broccoli, English spinach, cauliflower, celeriac, sweet potato, quinces and Brussels sprouts than it is perhaps sane to purchase lay the even more indulgent acquisitions. Buddha’s hand lemons, French sheep’s milk cheese. And odd sweet smelling spikey herbs with yellow flowers, at which I had pointed without having a clue what they were.

“Tarragon” yells the girl, across piles of mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes.

Not tarragon. Whence the long elegant dark green smooth tongues? And whither the delightful soft petalled bright egg-yolk coloured blooms? The scent was rich and liquorice-like, with spicy hints of cinnamon or nutmeg. Like, and yet unlike, tarragon. And what of its uncharacteristic mid-winter appearance?

As ever, when confronted with the alarming and the unknown, I came home and consulted the archives.*

French tarragon is a spring-through-autumn herb, which withers during the coldest of the winter months. It has a gentle and subtle liquorice flavour that is easily over-powered.

Tarragon, for the unwary, is a labyrinth of false trails. Beset on one side by ‘Russian tarragon’, a giant washed-out version, in colour and flavour, of French tarragon; and on the other by the mysterious plant “known as winter, Spanish or Mexican tarragon, which bears bright-yellow flowers, is sturdy and neat-looking with firm, dark-green leave and has a reasonably strong, spicy aroma similar to French tarragon”.*

Apparently, winter tarragon is a variety of marigold, and a perfectly safe and delicious substitute for tarragon. Finely shredded and mixed with avocado and fresh ricotta, it was lovely with poached eggs. And dehydrated in the oven and generously crumbed over mushroom and leek risotto, it enhanced the earthiness and creamy starches of the rice.

I may have been duped by the fines herbes equivalent of a fake Gucci bag, but I will always be a sucker for anything so pretty and unusual, and its flavour, rather than some preconceived notion, is what mattered in the end.

* Spice Notes by Ian Hempill

Mushroom and leek risotto with tarragon

The trick to risotto: constant stirring to release the starches around the rice, giving it that ‘creamy’ texture without adding actual cream. Make sure to coat the rice in the oils of the pan before adding liquid, add the liquid gradually as it is absorbed, and try to have the liquid at the same temperature as the risotto.

Serves 4

1 brown onion, finely diced
1 leek, washed and finely sliced (I use the green parts too)
50 g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
12 medium sized field mushrooms (about ½ kg)
1 cup risotto rice (I use Vialone Nano, a particular variety of risotto rice, but aborio or carnaroli are also perfect)
5 gm dried porchini mushrooms, soaked for 10 minute in ¼ cup warm water
2 cups English spinach
1 bunch winter tarragon, or French tarragon (if no tarragon is available, try 2 tsps finely chopped thyme or rosemary) – fresh or dehydrated.
1 litre water, warm to just simmering (you could use chicken or vegetable stock, but I find it’s not necessary)
50 gm finely grated parmesan

In a large heavy based saucepan over a medium, melt the butter and heat the oil. Add the onions and half the leek, stir until starting to soften. Add one third of the mushrooms, stir until softening.

Add the rice, and stir to coat. Add the porchini mushrooms and their liquid, and a ladle full of warm water, stirring constantly.

As the liquid is absorbed, add more warm water, stirring constantly.

Continue until the rice is almost cooked (this takes about half and hour). The rice should have a firm yet yielding texture, and the risotto should have a loose and sticky consistency. Add sea salt to taste.

In a separate saucepan, cook the remaining leeks and mushrooms in a tablespoon of olive oil, with half the tarragon. Set aside when the mushrooms are just cooked. (I do this so that some of the mushrooms and leeks retain a firmer texture when the meal is served).

When the rice is cooked, rapidly stir through the remaining mushrooms and leek, the English spinach and the grated cheese.

Spoon into deep dishes and scatter over the remaining tarragon.

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