Prawn and Basil Risotto

by thomandaimee

I’m surprised how long ago my previous post was. Every time I got down to writing, I never went past clicking ‘Create a new post’ and would be distracted by really unimportant things like watching videos on YouTube. It’s not that we haven’t been cooking, I’m just guilty of backlogging all our posts!! I need the discipline to really get down and finish up all the work. (Yes, writing can be a bitch sometimes!)

Going back to Project Italia, we decided to recreate a risotto we fell in love with in London. Our first lunch in our beloved England was at Polpo – a cosy casual restaurant that serves humble Venetian dishes that are full of flavour and wholesome ingredients. It was already part of our itinerary in the early stages of planning as we read only favourable reviews. We were lucky to get a table despite not having any reservations, and it was the perfect spot to fill our tummies and rid us of the unwanted jet lag.

Since our return, the dish continued to be on our minds and we managed to get a copy of the Polpo cookbook. To our joy, it featured a similar recipe to that we had in London (they replaced the asparagus with monk’s beard, a type of chicory common in Tuscany). Our take involved the humble basil, a versatile and aromatic herb, that lifts the natural umami flavours of the prawns. And any dish that requires the help of our lovely Mr. Frodo (we christened all our herbs with names from *cough* Lord of the Rings) is always a big welcome.

The star of the recipe is undoubtedly the tiny crustacean. While some might label the prawns as cockroaches of the sea world, they look and taste far more superior than those unwanted pests. Our Dad used to buy live prawns and leave them to fall into a icy cold slumber in the freezer before cooking. It might sound almost cruel but nothing beats eating really fresh prawns. But chilled prawns will do the job equally well. Just make sure that those lovely shellfishes are from a sustainable source and that the variety is not in danger of overfishing.

I can still remember the piquant fragrance of the fish stock Ned was preparing the day before. It set the tasting notes of the risotto with a refreshing sweetness. The final plated dish brought back many good memories;  the smooth rice grains, crunchy succulent prawns and  basil hit the right notes of a lazy Sunday afternoon. It was like being transported back to the intimate confines of Polpo. We suggest some Parmesan cheese to serve, giving it another punch of savoury tang.

Ah, writing this makes me want to go back to London…

Prawn Risotto with Basil
Adapted from Russell Norman, POLPO: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts)

Serves 4-6

For the Fish Stock
1kg fish bones and heads (Avoid oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and red mullet)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
240ml white wine
1 dried bay leaf
3 parsley stalks
6 black peppercorns

For the Risotto
1kg shell-on prawns
Extra virgin olive oil
2 large onion, 1 roughly chopped and 1 finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 celery stick, roughly chopped
240ml white wine
1 heaped tablespoon tomato puree
1 litre fish stock
50g butter
400g risotto rice
Sea salt and Pepper, to season
240ml white wine
1 small bunch basil
Parmesan cheese shavings, to serve


To make the fish stock, heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat then add the carrot, onion, celery. Lower to low heat and allow the vegetables to sweat until the onions are softened and are transparent, but not browned.

Lay the fish bones and head over the vegetables and cover, until the fish turns white/opaque. Add the wine and bring up to high heat to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Then add the bay leaf, parsley stalks and peppercorns and simmer at low heat for 30 to 45 minutes.

Strain the fish stock and refrigerate if not using immediately.

To make the prawn risotto, carefully pick the shells and heads off the prawns, retaining the shell and head. Trim the whiskers from the prawn heads. Devein the peeled prawns, wash them and place them into a bowl of ice with a little water.

Heat olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan to medium heat. Add the roughly chopped onions, garlic and celery in the oil, then lower the heat to low. Sweat the vegetables until the onions are softened and are transparent, but not browned.

Turn up to high heat and add all the prawn shells and heads. Keep stirring until the prawn heads turn dark orange and start to stick to the pan. Pour in the white wine and stir in the tomato puree. When the wine has evaporated, pour in the fish stock and lower the heat, to bring it to a gentle simmer for 30 minutes.

Take off the heat and strain the liquid into a new large saucepan. Remove shelled prawns from ice.

Using a large heavy-based pan, heat olive oil and 20g of the butter over medium heat and add the finely chopped onion. Lower to low heat and saute the onions for 15 minutes, or until it becomes translucent; do not brown it.

Turn to medium-high heat and add the rice, stirring it to coat ever grain with the oil. Add the white wine, stir well and allow the alcohol to evaporate. Turn down to medium heat.

When the wine has been absorbed by the rice, add a large ladleful of the stock until the rice is covered. Stir constantly until the stock is absorbed. Then add another ladleful to cover the rice and repeat this process (usually 2 to 3 times), until the rice looks creamy. Season with salt and pepper.

Before the rice is cooked to al dente, add the shelled prawns and the basil. Keep the rice moist with more stock, if necessary and stir gently. Check that the prawns are nicely pink and take off the heat. Add the remaining butter, stir once and serve.


Placing the prawns in ice-cold water will help to make them crunchy and succulent.

The fire needs to be on high heat when adding the wine to ensure the alcohol is evaporated. Otherwise, it would leave a bitter taste to the risotto.

Stir the risotto constantly to release the starch from the rice to create a creamy-looking risotto.

Al dente risotto should have a bite to it, but not powdery like uncooked rice. Taste the rice and if it feels powdery, add more stock and cook further.