Red rice risotto with rainbow roasted veg

I have a bit of a gripe about risotto. It’s not that I don’t like it, far from it; it’s a regular weekday staple in our house. It also tends to be the go-to dish for restaurants wanting to offer a vegetarian or vegan option. It’s a safe option, but safe can also be boring. And that’s the gripe! At the risk of sounding ungrateful, it doesn’t take much imagination to create a normal run-of-the-mill risotto, and equally it doesn’t take much to jazz things up a bit. After all, isn’t that one of the reasons for going out for dinner?

So why am I posting a risotto recipe? Well, if I can knock up a super tasty and slightly different risotto, I’m sure a professional chef can too! This recipe is packed full of flavour and textures as well as a whole host of wonderful nutrients that will make your body sing with joy! And it doesn’t need a pile of butter and cheese to make it taste good. The star of the dish is the rice – red rice.

I first discovered red rice whilst living in India. The little organic shop I visited down the road had a selection of different types all locally grown. It was quite an education browsing the shelves! Red rice has two key benefits over it’s more common relative, brown. The taste and the nutrients.

Taste wise, red rice has a slightly nutty earthy flavour that comes through in the dish but doesn’t dominate. It holds it’s texture well but is still quite starchy so becomes slightly sticky like arborio rice when cooked. On the nutrients side, because it’s a whole-grain it still contains the healthy fibre and bran, as well as protein and essential omega 3 fatty acid. Then there’s a whole host of micronutrients like manganese and magnesium, similar to whole-grain brown rice. The key to red rice is it’s colour.

Red plant-based foods contain special phytonutrients called anthocyanins, the same as those found in strong  red and purple veggies like red cabbage, red onions and radicchio. These phytonutrients are very active anti-oxidants and help mop up damaging free-radicals that harm the body. There’s much research going on about these wonderful nutrients and just how they work in the body. There’s a growing body of evidence that shows they are particularly good for eye health and inhibiting the growth of tumours. I get very excited about phytonutrients and their wonderful effect on the body!

Most of the veggies in this risotto are roasted whilst the risotto is cooking and then laid over the top. This helps to preserve and develop the flavours and nutrients rather than them getting boiled away. It doesn’t take any longer than adding them the traditional way, as both can be done at the same time. The watercress pesto is an added final extra dollop of flavour just to top it all off. It’s eye-catching colourful, deliciously tasty and completely dairy-free.

Red rice can be found in large supermarkets and independent health food shops, so have a look out for it and next time you’re planning risotto for tea, give this version a go – your taste-buds and body will be very happy if you do!

Red rice risotto with roasted rainbow veg (serves 4)
300g red rice rinsed and soaked for 20 minutes or so
6 medium carrots, rinsed and sliced in half horizontally
2 red peppers
5-8 asparagus spears (if in season) trimmed and sliced in half if they’re fat or 1 large courgette sliced lengthways
dash of olive oil
1 medium red onion, diced
2 fat cloves garlic, finely diced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
up to 1500ml vegetable stock
100g peas, defrosted
salt and pepper
fresh oregano (optional)
watercress pesto to serve (optional)

Red rice takes a bit longer than arborio rice, so start cooking that before roasting the vegetables. Heat a couple of tablespoons of water in the bottom of a large pan and sauté the onion for 5 minutes until it starts to soften. Add the garlic and continue to cook. Drain the rice then add to the pan, stirring well to coat with the onion and garlic. Stir in the thyme then pour in half the vegetable stock. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes or so. Once most the stock has been absorbed, add more to cover and continue cooking. Repeat this until the rice is soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed then add the peas and cook for another few minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Whilst the rice is cooking, pre-heat the oven to 180ºC. Whilst it is warming up prepare the vegetables. Arrange the carrots and pepper on a large baking tray, drizzle a little olive oil over the top and place in the oven. Add the asparagus once the carrots and pepper start to soften, about 10 minutes before the end. Once soft and caramelised, remove from the oven and leave to cool for a minute or so. Remove any blistered skin from the red pepper and cut it into slices.

If you are using pesto, follow the recipe here, replacing the basil leaves with a bunch of washed and trimmed watercress.

Once the rice is cooked, stir in the fresh oregano (if using) and check the flavour – add more salt and/or pepper as need.  Serve the red rice risotto in bowls then layer the roasted vegetables on the top. Finish with a dollop of watercress pesto (if using) and serve.

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