Let’s talk about pasta. It can often seem the signatory of student food, underwriting many a solemn midday lunch, hazy-drunk dinner, and ill-advised breakfast. It’s built up a reputation for not only ease, but sheer visibility as the corner-stone of student living – nary a student cookbook goes by without the carb-heavy gleam of spaghetti, penne, or tagliatelle (if you’re feeling bold) adorning the cover. Swinging, in turns, from cheapness to simplicity to the implicit patronisation of hangover food, these miniature tomes and the advice they schlep into student discourse have inscribed the perpetual comfort of P A S T A: boil it up, slump it out, squeeze the sauce.
pASTA’S built up a reputation for not only ease, but sheer visibility as the corner-stone of student living
So what, after all this anticipatory preamble, is my alternative? Another food with Italian heritage – risotto. Yes, it’s just as carb-y, with less initial variety in sort, and perhaps requires that slightest degree of personal finesse that pasta blissfully avoids. But that’s just the thing: the considered process of cooking is belied by the ease with which each dish comes together. Heat the oil or butter in the pan, slap the rice in after, and then gradually add your stock and accoutrements as you go. Those accoutrements often mean little in the moment, but so much to the eventual meal you create. Very few risotto meals taste purely of risotto, and the accumulation of stuff in the pan means that fewer still fall into pasta’s occasional lack of fulfilment. You know that slightly plain sensation you get from stringing up spaghetti with just too little sauce? You’ll rarely go hungry on risotto.
Take the humble mushroom and Parmesan dish. A key part of the meal is that the ingredients, at one point or another, are all cooked with one another – a sort-of soup, without all that irritating liquidity. There’s such a lovely miasma of flavour; add your Parmesan towards the end, as is the manner, and you get a piquant tang to the mushrooms. With such simple ingredients, the whole thing comes together easily. Add stock, chopped-up mushrooms, onions, watching it bulge further and further over the course of 20-or-so minutes, and then garnish with sharper flavours and serve. Risotto lends itself well to other diets – substituting butter for oil, and cheese for spice, makes for a great vegan dish. That you can put functionally anything in is so much to its benefit. I’m a fan of roasted pumpkin, asparagus, even tossing in some seafood and tripping that oh-so-controversial line into maybe-paella.
Risotto lends itself well to other diets
Of course, that complexity can be a sticking point for some. Certainly, I can’t blame them – it’s not, no matter how you look at it, ever going to be quite as easy as pasta. The little bits of the process are the trickiest. Stock must be added gradually, to avoid swamping the rice; additions should be cooked through either with the rice or outside to assure tenderness; and the seasoning, as ever, is in the winsome eye of the beholder. But, although the booze-addled mind of one slumping downstairs to get some grub may balk, the result is so much worth the effort. You’re a hit at dinner parties, envied arbiter of who gets seconds, and probably always have the chance to pick out the inevitable leftovers from the fridge.
Now, the price might be an issue – your average 500g pack of risotto rice is £1.25 from Tesco, or just over twice the cost of the same amount of pasta. But again, I refer to the fulfilment factor. A full, creamy spoonful will get you further than some strain-y, water-y pasta ever will – plus, you’re paying that extra for the sheer sophistication. All the odds and ends are hardly breaking the bank, either. Once you’ve got the basic recipe down, you can experiment with whatever permutations you feel so inclined towards. Avocado and butternut squash? Why not! So, set the pasta aside, get a good, simple-enough recipe, and start cooking! It’s great to get out of that young person’s food rut, and what’s more – eager mouths await.