Old cheese begets new dish
THE OLD can sometimes be the new. Taleggio is a cheese that has been around for as long as 10 centuries. But you wouldn’t think so to listen to the trendier local chefs who have decided that this Italian cheese is the next big thing. Just like when balsamic vinegar was “discovered” about 15 years ago, and God knows what will be discovered a year from now. Eggs, perhaps. Oh no, sorry, that’s this year’s fad.
It’s everywhere, on menus from one end of the region to the other, served in ever more imaginative ways, draped with this, drizzled with that and nestled with the other, and all the right foodies are chattering on about Taleggio as if it had only been invented last week, like the Kardashians, whatever they are. (I think they’re a kind of muesli, all fruit and nuts.)
Not that I am not up on all the latest trends, you understand. I am just allergic to flavour-of-the-month syndrome. So I am torn with this Taleggio thing, because it is undeniably a trend, yet it has been around for an entire millennium. It’s like jousting suddenly coming back into fashion, or throwing Christians to the lions, or eating great haunches of wild boar followed by a roasted swan, washed down by a tankard of mead.
But, apart from the Christiantossing, even those other two ancient pastimes are relatively new compared to Taleggio.
So I bought some. It turns out to be a medium- soft calves’ milk cheese which, on unwrapping its paper covering, immediately became one of my favourite cheeses. This needs to be seen in the context of my other favourite cheeses – they tend to be the ripe, stinky ones, the Pont l’eveque, the Stilton, the Gorgonzola (any blue cheese, really), and, if it has to be Camembert or Brie, it needs to be so ripe that once you unleash it from its wrapping it slithers out of the fridge of its own accord and makes a break for the back door.
It seemed fitting, this being a venerable Italian cheese, to use it to make an Italian dish. So out came a packet of arborio rice and I toddled off to Woolies to see what fresh vegetables might catch my fancy. Into the basket went baby asparagus tips, mangetout, small broccoli florets and red onions (there had to be something that wasn’t green), a head of garlic and a tub of crème fraiche. The latter was selected because I wasn’t sure how the taleggio would combine with the stock once I’d made risotto, and as it turned out my instinct was right – while the cheese blended very well, the resulting risotto dish still needed more creamy moisture. So in the crème fraiche went.
I’ve had a bit of a journey with risotto, as, I guess, has anyone who has tried to have the end result gorgeously creamy with the whole rice grains being intact but just soft. As with well-cooked pasta, risotto rice needs to be al dente, with a hint of crunch but not needing too firm a bite. What you don’t want is a mush. And it’s a touch-and-go business, making risotto. In the early days, I used to stir almost constantly, having listened to the many chefs who had instructed us all to do that. What they should have been saying is: rather than stir as such, use a flat-ended wooden spatula (like a flat wooden spoon) to scrape the bottom of the pot regu- larly, to avoid any sticking or burning. But gently, with no big stirring motions. Ease it this way and that. In between, the risotto should bubble at a gentle heat, so that there’s barely any hint of a bubble at all. This I have come to through trial and error, and I find it works perfectly.
Before making the risotto, blanch the vegetables in batches, by variety, by inserting in boiling water, boiling gently for two minutes, draining, refreshing in cold running water and then placing them in a bowl of water with plenty of ice cubes in it. They can stand in this for some time, but drain them about 15 minutes before you’re ready to add them to the risotto.
Start your risotto by making a litre-and-a-half of stock. This consists of two parts vegetable stock to one part dry white wine. But vary this as much as you like, substituting red wine for the white, and chicken stock for the vegetable stock. I have become a fan of Nomu fonds, which are highly concentrated stocks which you dilute in water in a ratio of 30ml to 500ml. Bring a litre of water to the boil in a large pot, dissolve the fond in it, add half a litre of wine, heat to a simmer and keep on the lowest heat, with a ladle to hand. Simmer the frozen peas in boiling water for 15 minutes, drain and refresh. Keep in the iced water until needed.
Now, in a separate pot, saute a chopped small red onion with three cloves garlic, finely chopped, until softened. Add 500g arborio rice (no, Daisy, not ‘Tastic’, it’s a brand, not a variety of rice, unless you can find Tastic risotto rice) and stir to combine the rice with the onion. Lower the heat. Add a ladle of hot stock, stir, and allow to simmer very gently, scraping the bottom as described above.
When most of the liquid has been absorbed add another ladle of stock. Repeat until all the stock is used up and the rice is al dente, which should take about half an hour. Cut 200g of Taleggio into small pieces and stir in to dissolve. Season to taste. Add the crème fraiche, stir to combine, heat to a gentle simmer. Add the drained vegetables, stir quickly and serve, with grated Parmesan if you like.
Read Tony Jackman’s weekly food column in the Sunday edition of Weekend Argus, which resumes publication next weekend.
CHEESE TREND: The perfect summer meal, risotto tossed with Taleggio and summer greens.