We don’t associate rice with summer. When it’s hot I’m not going to stand stirring a risotto – that’s what my soul will crave in October, when even the process of stirring becomes a welcome part of the autumnal slowdown. Pilafs are different as you don’t stir them, just let them cook in the heat of a covered pan, with not much ‘hot’ work involved. In any case, there are days when the temperature isn’t soaring and you feel like more than another tomato salad.
I am – I can’t help this – a bit of a purist about food. This doesn’t make sense because recipes cross borders, are tweaked and adapted. But I think of risottos as Italian and always make them with ingredients and flavors that work within our idea of what Italian food is. This is partly because I love the culinary differences between countries and regions, while accepting that the demarcations are blurred; there is no clear map. Generally, I want Spanish food to be Spanish and Italian food to be Italian, even though Moorish influences in parts of both countries have made these cuisines what they are.
Yet if I see a risotto made with charred corn in a restaurant in the States, I’ll order it. There’s a smoky summeriness to it that is irresistible, but it’s not Italian. I am trying to be less of a purist.
A pilaf is good in summer because so many different ingredients work in it. Rice pilafs are cooked all over the world – in central Asia, India and Pakistan, the Middle East and Greece – so it’s an adaptable and embracing dish, as good made with pumpkin, coriander and cardamom as with tomatoes, chilli and prawns. You can use the recipe overleaf as a blueprint, sticking to the method and quantity of rice and tossing other ingredients through once cooked. You could add fried squid and courgettes, flakes of cooked sardine with toasted pine nuts, soaked currants and mint, even rare lamb, dill, cherries and feta.
The touch that makes the pilaf below so summery is the garlicky tomato yogurt. It brings coolness and a bit of heat to every mouthful. Don’t get hung up on the temperature of pilaf, by the way. It shouldn’t be cold but neither does it need to be piping hot – you have leeway when you serve it in hot weather.
Rice comes into its own in the warmest months in salads. Banish all thoughts of cold overcooked white stuff tossed with frozen peas and sweetcorn. A brown basmati and wild rice recipe is one of the best-behaved dishes to serve at a barbecue or supper outside. The base can be made in advance – in fact, it tastes better as the rice drinks in the dressing. You can buy packs of brown rice mixed with wild rice so it all cooks together.
The dressing for the sweet-sour salad works with tomatoes and mango, but you can make any dressing – a basic French vinaigrette, with tarragon or a sloppy teaspoon of Dijon mustard, or with chives and buttermilk. Don’t worry about quantity, just make a decent amount and use what you need. The rest can wait in the fridge for another salad.
What other combinations work? Dried apricots (chopped, soaked in hot water and drained), green beans, mint and hazelnuts; tomatoes, shallots, basil, torn mozzarella and olives; peas, broad beans, cucumber, pistachios and loads of chopped soft herbs. Just remember that 150g of brown and wild rice serves six people as a side, and create at will.
Summer cooking can be that simple. And, maybe, a risotto doesn’t have to be Italian.
Roast corn, pepper and tomato risotto with green chilli relish
I usually regard risotto as a dish for cold weather, but the flavors here, especially those in the relish, make it work as a summer dish. The chilli gives your mouth a real smack. This would also be great with the addition of prawns. Sauté them when the risotto is ready, add lemon and seasoning, and gently stir them into the rice.