Risotto has a reputation for being difficult to master, but it's one of those dishes I've always enjoyed cooking when I have plenty of time. I suspect it has something to do with the act of preparing all the ingredients in advance and then leisurely inciting alchemy in the pan.

I also love the fact that variety is endless with risotto. Some of my favourites are Nigel Slater's Lemon and Asparagus risotto, you can't beat the pea and ham combo the Monday after a Sunday roast ham, and mushrooms are a match made in heaven for the aborio or carnaroli grain.  

If I happen to have vermouth in the cupboard, this will most certainly follow the grains into the pan. Otherwise a small glass of white wine will have to do. And freshly grated parmesan is an absolute must to serve.

The first time I tried a garlic infused butternut squash risotto was at a large informal dinner party 15 or so years ago. I can't remember anything about the party except for the hosts and their amazing risotto starter.

With its wonderful quality of soaking up flavour alongside a chewy texture and nutty taste, pearl barley is a great alternative to risotto rice. I simply boil it rapidly for 10 minutes before draining, adding to the pan and cooking the risotto in the normal way until the pearl barley has soaked up all the liquid (and doubled in size).