Culture: Food by Gastrono-me - A time to weep, a time to laugh, a time to make risotto

Gemma Simmonite from Gastrono-me
Gemma Simmonite from Gastrono-me

While Gastrono-me gets ready for its new venture, executive chef Gemma Simmonite has felt lost without the busy hours in the kitchen. . . until she found her ‘food comfort’

As a lovely Gastrono-me customer and friend pointed out yesterday, it’s been four Saturdays since we closed our St John’s Street doors in readiness of starting our new venture on Abbeygate Street. I can tell you now, it feels longer.
Saturdays at Gastrono-me were not measured in minutes and hours, but in fried eggs, pancakes, mezzes and scones, informing the kitchen where we were in the day. There was barely time to look up at the clock. The heat, no matter what the season, was intense (yes, eyelids can sweat), as were the emotions. The drama, the pressure, the camaraderie was addictive and I think I’m going through cold turkey.
It first manifested itself in all that I did in my new ‘downtime’ was pore through cookery books, food pictures and old recipes. The next two weeks we immersed ourselves in the new menu that’s to come, followed by concentrated trialling and tastings. But later on in the weeks, the one thing I couldn’t find was my food comfort – comfort in my home kitchen, with nothing more to cook for than our own appetites and whim – it almost seemed perverse just to cook for us. I wanted my stage and to cook with my fellow chefs for a hungry audience. I now couldn’t seem to locate that bliss I feel in the kitchen, enveloped in a recipe with the blur of aromas and warmth.
That was until last Saturday. I self punishingly always watch the clock on Saturdays now. At 7.30am I know I would be stuffing pastry into bun moulds for Portuguese custard tarts, 8am putting the final slick of cream cheese frosting on our carrot cake, 8.30am checking my hob station was ready for the kick off – oil bottles filled, check; palette knives, wooden spoons at the ready. 9am – kick off! Shiny faces crossing the threshold already knowing what they wanted even before they’d been seated. Calls of “Three hash”, “Two pain perdu, one with extra bacon”, “Three salmon scrambles, two bacon scrambles extra crispy” would ring through the air and I would be in the zone, with my dedicated army at my side. So it was with this fidgety, almost painful yearning that I began the route back into my kitchen last weekend.
It was a mushroom risotto that I focused my attention on. Firstly, I think I chose it because mushrooms, onions and garlic always reside in the refrigerator, followed by an air punch when I discovered an old but perfectly ready box of carnaroli rice at the back of the cupboard. White wine is also naturally a constant in our house, (no judgment please), so I was set.
Funnily enough this risotto was also the first thing I ever cooked for an audience. In our first flat in Wandsworth above a fishing tackle shop – really a hovel, but to us in our very early 20s, a palace! Our first inaugural dinner party was the occasion. Two close friends were to be the guinea pigs for my first risotto. I knew that it was a slow-cooked dish that had to be watched over – I translated this into plenty of time to chat casually with a glass of wine while glamorously stirring. Unfortunately, the stirring and the casual quaffing somewhere fell out of synch, and I became more cooked than the rice – we never did get to eat it. The rice was a thick mess, as were we. . .
I approached my hob with trepidation, like an adversary. It didn’t feel right. Noise was needed, so I found an album – Kate Bush is always my comfort, each album marking a different time of my life. So with her company I began. Onions sizzling in butter, oil and garlic, and my fingers started to hover confidently again over the utensils. Squeezing dried porcini mushrooms magically brought to life by water, I could feel a smile slowly simmering along with the heady stock. I was coming to life too. Chalky rice with a few vegetables, transformed into a creamy, glossy dish I still think is a miracle. The most modest amount of rice that suddenly swells
and transforms into a feast is literally alchemy in
a saucepan.
But much more than that, a risotto gives you time. Time to ponder. You stand, you stir, you think. Whether it’s the time needed to shake off the day that’s been as you leisurely ladle, or time to escape as you daydream of something exciting to come, or to simply remember something that was so very, very precious to you. That’s what a risotto allows you –
time.

Gastrono-me risotto

Gastrono-me risotto

Porcini Mushroom Risotto

Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4

40g pack of dried porcini mushrooms
250g chestnut mushrooms
2 tablespoons of butter, plus an extra tablespoon for serving
300ml warm water
900ml vegetable bouillon stock – I chose to keep it vegetarian, but chicken would work beautifully
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons of olive oil
330g of carnaroli rice, but arborio would be great too
100ml dry white wine, plus extra to keep the chef company
100g frozen Petit Pois
2 tablespoons of fresh chopped tarragon, if not available dried will do. It’s one of the better dried herbs and does taste of more than sawdust, unlike some dried herbs
60g parmesan, plus extra for serving. If vegetarian, there are some great alternatives starting to appear down the cheese aisle.
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

l Put the porcini in a bowl, cover with the warm water and leave to hydrate for around 20 minutes. Drain reserving their liquor, then strain it through a paper coffee filter, or a very fine sieve. Mix this into your chosen stock, and then transfer this fragrant mix into a saucepan. Bring it to a gentle boil.
l Chop your onion ready for sautéing and crush your garlic *read tip. Roughly chop your rejuvenated porcini mushrooms, wipe clean your chestnut mushrooms and thickly slice.
l Gently melt your butter and olive oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan add the garlic and diced onion, stir until the onion becomes translucent and softens slightly.
l Add the rice to the pan, cook stirring the rice until the grains are coated for about a minute or two.
l Next add the wine and let it bubble and evaporate. Add
both types of mushrooms to your pan, along with your tarragon, salt and pepper, stir for 2-3 minutes until the mushrooms start
to soften.
l Add your first ladleful of stock (make sure your saucepan of stock is kept to a gentle simmer)
l Now comes the ‘time’ part as you only ladle a new amount of stock, when the last one has been absorbed, while stirring gently all the time. This is your time, devoid of distraction. Immerse yourself and hunker down for the next 20-25 minutes or so. Music and wine to accompany optional – but highly recommended.
l Maintain your heat sensitively making sure it doesn’t bubble too quickly. When you taste you are aiming for a tender rice, that has bite, but not chalky – it’s a very fine line, so near the end of your cook keep tasting.
l You should be gazing now at a creamy, unctuous mixture that has transformed – not stiff or dry. Throw in your frozen peas (no need to cook beforehand) and stir until they turn bright green from the residual heat. Now turn off your heat and stir through your parmesan, or parmesan alternative, and add the extra tablespoon of butter.
Season with salt and pepper again to taste.

Gemma is executive chef and co-creator of Gastrono-me, which re-opens on Abbeygate Street later in the year after a successful five-and-half years in St John’s Street.
gastrono-me.co.uk