I first read The Godfather by Mario Puzo when I was about eleven after I found a tatty copy of it on my fathers bookshelf, keeping company with his yellow and black-liveried Dennis Wheatley paperbacks. As a man who spent 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 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 characters German-Irish ancestry which made him an unusual choice of lawyer/advisor for these Italian-American gangsters. So unusual a choice was he that the Corleones were referred to as ‘The Irish Gang’ by the other families who struggled to understand why the Corleones did not choose an Italian to be their counsel.
My son spent last Christmas at his uncles in a little village a few miles from Frankfurt: the towers and skyscrapers of the financial district were close enough to be seen in the distance from the roads around their house. He brought home a hamper filled with German foodstuff and all that speck, headcheese, pumpernickel, pflaumenmus (prune jam) and several kinds of wurst have kept us fed ever since. I love the muscular texture of speck, the sturdy way it stands up to all manner of boisterous kinds of cooking and to the Irish-inflected cabbage. It is this resilience which makes it perfect in my risotto, an Irish-Italian-German melange which earns it the moniker: Tom Hagen Risotto.
The flavours are wintry and bold and the Savoy cabbage perfectly melds with the cheese as it melts into the rice. The speck is sliced lengthways then cut into bouncy little dice, some with an edging of fat, some not and fried. The cabbage is julienned and then fried in butter too which causes it to develop lovely caught edges with a browned-butter flavour. There’s flexibility regarding what cheese you use too: fontina or taleggio all work well and I have also used a munster-géromé from Alsace-Lorraine. You do need a cheese that yields though as opposed to one that just sits on top of the risotto because those soft cheesy trails from mouth to plate as you fork up heaps of cabbage, rice and bacon bring the best pleasure.
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 and 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.
4-5 tbsp unsalted butter / 1.5L Chicken stock / 400g Carnaroli risotto rice / 1 med finely diced onion/ 80 ml white wine / 400g Savoy cabbage, cut into fine ribbons (julienne) / 150g speck cut into lardons / 100g grated fontina or taleggio /
Place the chicken stock into a saucepan and bring it to a gentle boil. Once it starts to boil, lower the heat and 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 too. It’s your call. Here’s a good stock recipe if you want to make your own.
Melt two tablespoons of butter in a wide and shallow pan, add the finely-diced onion and start to sweat until softened which will take around four to five minutes. Keep the heat nice and low, you don’t want burned onions. Put another tablespoon of butter into a small fry-pan and add the ribbons of Savoy cabbage and let them start to soften. This should take a couple of minutes, then switch the heat off under the cabbage and let it rest.
Now you need to add the diced speck into the pan of softened onion and fry over a low to medium heat until the fat runs and the speck starts to colour. Those fat little cubes will start to pop and jump around in the pan like miniature Brown Betty bombs so don’t worry, this is normal but stand back a bit. When it has started to brown, stir in the risotto rice and swirl them around the pan, ensuring the grains acquire a glossy brown-butter coat. If you need more butter, now’s the time to add it. This stage is a very important moment known as the brillatura, or “sparkling,” which describes the translucent look of the rice kernels as they appear to toast in the browned butter.
Now 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. Now add in the set-aside cabbage ribbons and stir again. You want to maintain it 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, stirring and stirring. You don’t need to stir constantly, but 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 allow for 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, you aren’t making congee. This process should take about twenty to twenty-five 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 teaspoon or so of cold butter and then add in the pecorino, taleggio or fontina or whatever cheese you have chosen and stir it in. 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 warms you from the outside in.