Hot here, so very hot and humid. A drenching, mind-sapping heat. No sun, just thick treacle-like sultriness. The sort of closeness that wears you down, strips all motivation away, renders you virtually immobile and sees you gasping for air, any air. It is with heavy fingers and my last ounces of willpower I sit down to write.
My sister, famous in these pages as sender of magical spices, came up with the idea I should write posts based around the various different vegetables and other produce mostly native to these shores. It is a good idea, especially since I am aware I have barely acknowledged the culinary culture of this country in these posts. To be honest, I am somewhat indifferent to many of the dishes here. There is an unappealing habit that everything has to be saturated in oil, second-hand oil sometimes, and often nothing seems to taste of anything. There are notable exceptions of course.
韭菜，that’s jiu cai (pronounced gee-o tsy), is an ever-present in dumplings, chopped finely, and also makes a very successful appearance at barbecues where it is grilled in strips then smothered with a spicy paste of chillies and cumin seeds. It tends to be translated variously as ‘garlic chives’, ‘leek chives’ and ‘Chinese chives’ and I prefer the first option because there is a definite alliaceous tang to the allium, as well as, I think, a slight citrus note in the finish. In Chinese medicine apparently it is used to ‘tonify the Yang,’ perfect then for people lacking some sunshine in their lives, literally and metaphorically.
First I had to find some. My local unfriendly greengrocer didn’t have any and eventually I located some in the fridge compartment of a nearby supermarket. I rather had the idea of cycling home with the herb fronds flapping from a paper bag but in the end I had to be content with walking back over a bridge with the chives sealed inside a plastic container.
What to do with them. As well as a dumpling filling they are also added to pancakes and, in general, they go well with many egg dishes. I can see them being involved in a late night scramble at some point. But I wanted them to feature a little more prominently, to add an extra kick to something else. I thought of the risottos made in the Spring with wild garlic pulled from banks by the side of the road and decided the jiu cai could do the same job just as well and perhaps even better.
So, base of white onion and celery – the obsession continues – softened in butter and rice stirred in. Stock, already prepared and defrosted, simmering in a pan and doled into the rice mixture when the previous ladling had evaporated. Low heat and a steady stir with a wooden spoon. I considered blanching the chives but in the end didn’t think it was necessary, and besides I only have two hobs, right? I would chop them finely and add with the last ladling. That’s what I did.
A very pleasing finish to the dish with the creaminess offset by the specks of chives. The risotto was lifted, much in the way lemon zest will add zing to a big beefy stew. A soothing, slippery rice dish with the added tang of garlic chives. A winner. And now I feel better.
POSTSCRIPT: As is customary I made enough food for two meals but, returning to the risotto the next day I discovered the chives had soured somehow, giving the dish a very unpleasant bitter taste. Nothing to be done with that, no way to salvage it. If I repeat the dish I will just make a basic risotto and add the chives, possibly slightly blanched, for each serving.