Tuesday morning was cold and bright. We wrapped up warmly and headed out to our favourite singing session. I knew it was properly cold when Baby Bird made no attempt to remove her mittens. A first, and proof that we have, thus far, been having an unusually mild winter. This time last year, we were just thawing out from six weeks of snow and ice. This year, half my early spring shrubs have gone bananas and started flowering and last summer's geraniums, which i never quite got round to taking in are still blooming here and there on the patio.
We had had an early start, Baby Bird having decided that 5:50 is the ideal time to start the day, so I was delighted when she crashed out in the buggy on the way home from playgroup. I was desperate for some time to get things sorted out, and maybe a chance for a quiet cuppa. Which is precisely why I should have left her in her buggy, done up like a Michelin man in many, many layers of sleep-inducing wool and puffa coat. But the panic-merchant in my head was bleating that she would overheat and so I attempted a buggy-bed transfer, including removal of shoes and coat. Yes, a bold parenting move that only the most virtuoso mothers can accomplish.
Which is precisely why my daughter only had a twenty minute nap (the time it took me to walk back and potter around Sainsbury's) and why, by 4:30, my head was ringing from the whinging, whining and general grumpiness that affects the overtired toddler and I was desperate to do something calming that got me a little space from the endless rounds of requests to be picked up followed immediately by tears, shouting and struggling to be put down, followed immediately by further tearful requests to be picked up. Several further fruitless attempts had been made to achieve a nap and we were now firmly in ride it out 'til bedtime or she'll be up 'til midnight territory.
This is all a very longwinded way of explaining how I came to cook risotto for dinner on Tuesday. You see, by 4:30 (the ludicrously early time that my thoughts now have to turn towards the dinner table if I want Baby Bird to still have the energy to eat a proper, home-prepared meal), we were both in need of a little quiet time. What better way than for me to retreat to the kitchen and indulge in the wonderfully restorative process of endlessly storing a risotto, while she played with some toys and "read" her books?
The initial round of banging saucepans and shouting at Mummy to join in was not exactly calming but thankfully (and I feel like an appalling mother for writing this) if you make it clear that whatever boring activity you are engaged in is the only thing you will be doing, she will get bored and start amusing herself. Lest you fear I neglect her, I should point out that she is in same room as me or the room next door, surrounded by many toys, I always check on her of she sounds in distress or if she is ominously silent and I can't see her, and I will generally chat and sing songs with her while cooking. So she is ignored but only in the loosest sense of not being actively played with and not for very long.
So, by the time I had chopped the onion and mushrooms and crushed the garlic, she was happily bobbing up and down on the back step, talking to the garden, and by the time I was ladling the first spoonful of stock into the pan of sweated onions, garlic and lightly fried rice, I was beginning to feel significantly more human. Cooking risotto never fails to restore and refresh me.
I never use a proper recipe for risotto (which is why I always manage to make too much) but the key, I have learnt, is to add good stock to good rice a spoonful at a time, allowing the rice to absorb the stock and go sticky before adding the next spoonful. Stir slowly but constantly adding stock for twenty mins or until rice is tender. All this stirring means that, for those twenty blissful minutes, I am at once completely physically engaged and completely mentally free to wander; the perfect state I find (I love swimming for a similar reason). I can literally feel my mind unspool and soften as my hand moves slowly round and round and the gentle steam and wonderful aromas rising from the pan warm my face. That, right there, is heaven to me.
Baby Bird and I tucked in happily, and I tried to stop myself from eating the inevitable third portion that I always seem to end up with by thinking of how yummy risotto cakes would be for Wednesday's lunch.