Culture: Food writer Nicola Miller delves into the back-story of Tom Hagen's Risotto
I first read The Godfather by Mario Puzo when I was about 11 after I found a tatty copy of it on my father’s bookshelf. As a man who had seemed to spend half his life on a plane, he had amassed a fine collection of airport novels and at the time The Godfather and Arthur Hailey’s Hotel ruled supreme. I loved Puzo’s descriptions of the sloppy red pepper and steak sandwiches eaten as the Corleone brothers arranged to go to the mattresses after war broke out between the ruling mobster families of New York City and New Jersey. Life and death came together in these glorious kitchen feasts as Sonny Corleone charged round like a raging bull and the family Consigliere, a man called Tom Hagen, attempted to calm him down.
Tom Hagen’s name is a wonderful genealogical collision, the result of the character’s German-Irish ancestry which made him an unusual choice of lawyer/adviser for these Sicilian-American gangsters. So unusual a choice was he that the Corleones were referred to as ‘The Irish Gang’ by the other crime families who struggled to understand why the Corleones did not choose a Sicilian to be their counsel.
My risotto is an Irish-Italian-German melange which earns it the moniker: Tom Hagen Risotto. I have added liberal amounts of savoy cabbage (a popular vegetable in both Ireland and Germany), and ribbons of speck from northern Italy (the Alto-Adige to be precise). Now I know that the Corleone family were Sicilian (hence all that caponata) whereas risotto is from the north of the country, but let’s not pretend that this risotto would be seen as authentic by any Italian, let alone one from Sicily.
The flavours are wintry and bold and the Savoy cabbage and cavolo nero meld with the cheese as it melts into the rice. You do need a cheese that yields because those soft cheesy trails from mouth to plate as you fork up heaps of cabbage, rice and speck are what makes the dish such a pleasure to eat. You can slice the speck if you like but I leave it in strips because I think it looks nicer. The cabbage and cavolo are julienned and then fried in butter too which causes them to develop lovely caught edges with a browned-butter flavour.
The important thing to remember about risotto is that it loves your company. Stand close by with a wooden spoon and a pan full of warming stock on the next hob. Risotto doesn’t appreciate infusions of cold stock which cause it to lose heat. The steadier the temperature and more metronomic the stirring, the creamer your risotto will be and you will feel calm and warm and well-disposed towards your fellow humans. It’s a shame Mama Corleone didn’t make this calming meal for her warring children because she might
have spent less time at church praying for the repose of their souls.
Tom Hagen’s risotto
5 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1.5L chicken stock
400g carnaroli risotto rice
1 large finely-diced onion
80ml white wine
350g Savoy cabbage, cut into fine ribbons (julienne)
100g cavolo nero, cut into ribbons, stalks removed
130g Italian speck
Black pepper to finish
Place the chicken stock into a saucepan and bring it to a gentle simmer then keep it simmering and covered on the back of the hob. You may need to top it up with more stock if you run out but this should be enough. I have used ready-made fresh stock for this risotto and I have also used stock made from the carcass of a chicken with a few leeks, carrots, a stem of celery and some onion. It’s your call.
Melt three tablespoons of butter and the olive oil in a wide and shallow pan, add the finely diced onion and start to sweat until softened. Keep the heat nice and low because you don’t want burned onions. Add the ribbons of savoy cabbage and cavolo until softened.
Now you need to add the speck into the pan of onion and cabbage and fry over a low to medium heat until the fat runs. Stir in the risotto rice and another tablespoon of butter then swirl the rice and vegetable mixture around the pan, ensuring the grains acquire a glossy buttered coating. This stage is a very important moment known as the brillatura, or ‘sparkling’, which describes the translucent look of the rice kernels as they start to cook in the browned butter.
Pour in the wine over the rice mixture and stir over a low to medium heat until most of the wine has been absorbed by the rice. Stir, stir, stir. You want to maintain the movement of the rice at the all’onda e al dente stage where the risotto moves across the pan in a wave-like motion as your spoon travels round and round the pan. You do need to stir often because this is what encourages the rice to give up its starch.
Ladle in a cup of the hot chicken stock and continue to stir over a low-medium heat until all of this stock has been absorbed. Keep it company; make sure you have a little taste now and again and add a little salt if you think it requires it – let it cool slightly on the spoon so the flavour isn’t masked by the heat. The speck is naturally salty so you will need to allowfor that.
Continue to ladle in the stock until it has pretty much been used up or the rice is done: you will know if it is because it will possess a creamy texture and the centre will retain a small bite. You don’t want mush though. This process should take about 20 minutes and don’t rush it as what you are aiming to do is slowly integrate the rice with the other ingredients, allowing each grain to be permeated by the flavour of the stock. The time you spend will be amply rewarded, I promise you.
When you think it is ready, turn off the heat and stir through another tablespoon or so of cold butter, then dollop on the taleggio in small lumps. This stage is not an after-thought nor a casual finishing-off of your dish: it is far more important than that. You are completing the mantecatura where diced cold butter is vigorously stirred in to make the texture as smooth and creamy as possible. This completes what happened during the cooking when your stirring freed the starch molecules from the outside of the rice grains into the stock. The released starch helps create that unctuous texture and you are looking for a risotto which Italians describe as all’onda, (wavy, or flowing in waves) so that when you tip the plate slightly, the risotto ripples across its top. Don’t hang around either, it needs eating immediately because it will continue to gently cook – part of the reason why it is so comforting to eat as its steam and creaminess warm you.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale