If there’s one thing in my life that I can never get sick of, it’s cheese.
Soft, creamy French brie; punchy, strong Cheddar; nutty Leerdammer. I love them all in equal measure. So when I was contacted by the team at Grana Padano to enter their top chef challenge, I couldn’t refuse.
Grana Padano is possibly the only cheese which can compete with what is widely regarded as the King of Cheese, Parmigiana Reggiano, so I was excited to get involved with this delicious, unpasteurised Italian cheese and see what I could make.
Headed up by celebrity chef Franceso Mazzei, the challenge was to make 2 dishes – either a starter & main or main & dessert – using Grana Padano as the star ingredient, alongside a selection of seasonal produce hand picked by Francesco. Each dish had to capture the spirit of Italy.
With my brief in hand and a basket of ingredients I headed into the kitchen. I decided to make saffron & butternut squash arancini for my starter.
First off I diced the butternut squash and spread it on a baking sheet, splashed it with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, pepper, mixed herbs and a tiny pinch of red chilli flakes before baking for around 30 mins.
While the squash was in the oven, I made my saffron scented risotto. Firstly I fried pancetta cubes until crispy, then removed from the pan and drained on kitchen paper. Next I warmed chicken stock in a small saucepan with a pinch of saffron, then chopped a small onion and 3 cloves of garlic finely which I fried in the pancetta pan with a tablespoon of butter and a splash of olive oil.
When the onion was softened and had started to turn translucent I added the arborio rice and stirred until glossy and coated with the oil and butter. Then came the theraputic part, as I added first a glass of Pinot Grigio, then the saffron infused stock ladle by ladle and stirred until it was fully absorbed and the rice was cooked al dente.
By this point the butternut squash was roasted, so I removed it from the oven and allowed to cool for a little while. I grated a good amount of the Grana Padano into the risotto and stirred so it melted into the rice. I then scattered with herbs, stirred in the butternut squash and pancetta, then added a little extra cheese to taste.
At this point I split the risotto, keeping one half to eat straight away for dinner, leaving the other half to cool before making the arancini.
Once the risotto was cool, I formed it into small balls, dipped first into flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs. I chilled the balls overnight in the fridge then fried in vegetable oil until golden and crisp the next day. And there you have it golden arancini with saffron, butternut squash and Grana Padano!
I must say these were delicious. The combination of smoky bacon, sweet squash, salty cheese and creamy rice encapsulated in crisp breadcrumbs really was a winner to me!
For my main dish, I decided to try my hand at homemade pasta. I’d never made it before but I had some beautiful duck eggs from the local farmers market, so I couldn’t resist using them to make fresh pasta. I used 2 duck eggs and 200g flour.
I didn’t have a pasta machine, so old fashioned rolling pin it was. I decided to make Fettucine, partly because I felt I could achieve the shape fairly easily! I will admit, once cooked, my strands were a tad thick, but still so much better than the dried stuff.
For the sauce I used a selection of dried wild mushrooms and some fresh Portobello mushrooms, sliced. First I soaked the dried mushrooms in boiling water for around 10 minutes, then drained, reserving some of the soaking liquid.
I fried the Portobellos in butter and olive oil with finely chopped garlic and a scattering of mixed herbs before adding the soaked mushrooms. I added in some Napoli salami for sweetness, to balance the earthy mushrooms and allowed to cook for a few minutes. Once the mushrooms had started to cook and the salami had rendered some of its fat, I deglazed the pan with a splash of Pinot Grigio, before adding in the cooked fettucine.
I added a spoonful of the reserved mushroom liquid to create the sauce, then grated in a heap of Grana Padano and scattered with torn fresh basil leaves and cracked black pepper before serving with more Grana Padano on the side. Bella!
I like to think I captured the spirit of Italy by using some of its best produce in a simple but fun way. I can only hope Francesco feels the same way!
Check back in a couple of weeks to see whether I’m through to the next round, which will involve a live cooking challenge in London in front of the man himself.
Wish me luck!
The ingredients supplied for the challenge, shopping voucher and prep kit including microplane grater were complimentary, many thanks to the Grana Padano team. All opinions remain my own, as always.