I am looking after my friend who has illness-related dietary issues and eats very gentle foods only, white rice and potatoes being high on the list of foods he can eat. I want to make some sort of risotto, but onion and garlic are not good for him. I can flavour it with chicken broth and parmesan, but would you have any suggestions on what I can replace the flavours that the sauteed onions bring to it? Also, do you have any ideas on how we can make a good potato mash without butter or anything too rich?
I’m sorry to hear of your friend’s illness, but don’t despair, there are many delicious foods that don’t use any of the allium family — which also includes chives, shallots, spring onions and leeks. Much as the smell of a pan of caramelised onions is rather wonderful, you can make things truly delicious without them. There are many people who don’t eat vegetables from this family due to religious beliefs, and this includes India’s Jains (they also exclude potatoes, just like some Japanese Buddhists) and strict followers of Krishna, Rama and Vishnu. In Ayurvedic medicine it’s believed alliums inflame passion and cause ignorance. (Just try telling that to an Italian chef who might be happy with the first assumption but definitely not the second.) It would be well worth searching for cookbooks from these groups for your friend, as the food is often very healthy and seems to tackle many dietary issues as once.
For your risotto, instead of caramelising onions and garlic for your soffrito, use thinly sliced or diced celeriac and fennel instead, cooked in olive oil. The thinner or smaller the better, as you’ll get more surface area caramelised, which is what’s so lovely when using onions and shallots. You could also roast some diced kumara or pumpkin, about 1cm dice, and add these to your risotto. You may think the idea of double starch a little odd, but it works well, as does adding chickpeas or cooked beans such as flageolet or butter beans. When making the (onion-free) chicken stock, roast the bones first to a deep dark golden colour with chunks of carrots and parsnips. It’s the caramelisation that will give your risotto extra flavour. If he can eat tamari (a wheat-free soy sauce), that will add a huge amount of umami to dishes — as does miso paste, the secret ingredient I use whenever I can. I even add half a teaspoon of miso to my porridge, which I make using either water or soy milk, the miso adding some wow factor, so it might be good to introduce that too.
For the mashed potato, there are many non-dairy milks out there now, but if he’s craving a rich non-buttery buttery experience, you can add coconut cream. If you put a can of coconut milk in the fridge and leave it overnight, the fatty parts that rise to the top set like fat. Open the can, carefully spoon this fat out and use it. The thin liquid can be used to cook the potatoes in, or use it in your risotto. Actually I’ve just re-read your question and you don’t want anything rich, so perhaps ignore this coconut suggestion but I’ll leave it in for non-dairy eaters.
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Instead, boil your potatoes in one of the non-dairy milks, or any leftover chicken stock, and drain. Heat up some roughly chopped fresh rosemary, allow 1 teaspoon per 4 people, in extra virgin olive oil until sizzling then mix in 1 tablespoon grain mustard and mash this into the potatoes along with some of the reserved cooking liquid. If you’re able to mash in some grated cheese then all the better, even if it were just some lovely piquant salty parmesan — a little will go a long way. It won’t be rich, but it will be very tasty.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.