Little Hallingbury chef Alistair Dibbs gives his recipe for courgette risotto with basil and courgette flowers
Top chef Alistair Dibbs, from Little Hallingbury, extols the virtues of growing, cooking and eating your own food...
Courgettes mark the beginning of summer in terms of vegetable growing and are a real high point of the year for me.
When I was a boy, my father would plant them each spring, and there was always a sense of anticipation as the bright yellow flowers came into bloom prior to the courgettes forming.
My mother would simply fry them as an accompaniment to whatever was being served up that evening for dinner. Times have moved on and through my career I have developed lots of fantastic dishes making use of this delicious vegetable.
Courgettes are incredibly versatile and work well accompanying meat or fish, as well as being equally at home as a main ingredient in a vegan or vegetarian dish. They can also be used in cakes and desserts too.
When courgettes are young, each one will have a spectacular yellow flower on its tip. Be sure to pick these flowers early, before the courgette gets to its full size, because as the vegetable gets bigger the flower will wither and drop off. These flowers are absolutely delicious in salads, or stuffed or deep fried (see my risotto recipe below).
Courgettes are super-easy to grow and are pretty hardy, too, so even if vegetable growing is new to you there's a good chance you will achieve fairly impressive results in your first year. Here are a few simple tips:
* Sow the seeds at the beginning of April in small individual pots of compost. Keep them indoors on a windowsill or in a greenhouse until any danger of frost has passed, around mid-May in our region.
* Keep them hydrated – I tend to lightly water them daily.
* Feed them weekly with a tomato feed (such as Tomorite).
* When they are around 15cm (6in) high, they are ready to plant out in the garden. During the week prior to planting them out, accustom them to the outdoor temperature by putting them outside in daytime then bringing them in each night.
* Plant them in a sunny area of the garden in compost, leaving at least 2ft between the plants – be aware that the plants do get pretty large.
* Pick the courgettes when they are around 15cm (6in) long by cutting through the stem underneath with a small sharp knife.
Below is one of my all-time favourite courgette recipes. The risotto can be easily made in 30 minutes and makes a great midweek dinner treat.
Courgette risotto with basil & courgette flowers
50ml olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic
500g risotto rice
200ml white wine
1.2 litres of boiling water and 2 vegetable stock cubes OR 1.5 litres of vegetable stock
To finish the risotto
3 medium sized courgettes
50g home-made or good-quality, shop-bought pesto
60g freshly grated parmesan
40g crème fraiche
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
20g olive oil
For the courgette flowers
4 large courgette flowers
For the batter
50g plain flour
80ml sparkling water
Pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon
In a large, heavy pan, heat half the olive oil and gently fry the onion and garlic for around 10 minutes, taking care not to let them take on any colour. Add the rice and cook for 2 minutes. Next, add the wine and cook until it has evaporated. Add the hot stock a ladle at a time, allowing each ladle to be absorbed before adding the next.
While the risotto is cooking, prepare the courgettes to go on top of the risotto. Using a peeler, take one of the courgettes and peel 8 thin strips from its length. Lay the courgette strips on a chopping board, sprinkle with salt and a squeeze of lemon (this will cure them) and leave them for 10 minutes. Roll them up into cylinders and set them aside.
Dice the two other courgettes into cubes the size of sugar cubes, season them and gently pan fry them in olive oil and set aside.
Once the risotto rice is cooked al dente (it has a bit of bite left to it), turn the heat right down and add the parmesan, pesto, crème fraiche, butter and check the seasoning. This will give it that luxurious, restaurant taste. Set it aside for a few moments while you deep-fry the courgette flowers.
Heat a pan of vegetable oil to 170C.
Whisk together all the batter ingredients and carefully dip each flower into the batter. Carefully place each flower into the oil and repeat with the three others. Each one will take about 30 seconds to cook, then flip them over and give 30 seconds on the other side. When cooked, remove from the oil and place onto kitchen paper to drain.
To assemble the dish
Place a portion of risotto on each bowl. Place the diced courgette on the top and then place two of the courgette cylinders on top of each portion of risotto. Finish with a courgette flower and a final grating of parmesan.
Alistair runs Hallingbury Events company – www.hallingburyeventscompany.co.uk – a creative, food-led weddings and events caterer based near Bishop's Stortford. It will cater in your home or venue and also has an events space, the Red Lion in Weston, near Hitchin. Instagram@hallingburyevents.
Lockdown is easing but many people are not ready to venture out to a restaurant yet. We have been receiving enquiries to cook for clients in their own homes, recreating that restaurant experience for small gatherings. Menus can be designed to specific requirements. We offer two options: a fully-catered service or a simple drop-off with full heating and serving instructions. To find out more, email email@example.com.
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