It’s hard enough to believe that four springs have come and gone since I started this blog. What’s even harder to believe, though, is that I’ve never shared this recipe with you. Just ask D: I make it about once a week when asparagus are in season, toting it to work as often as I dish it out for dinner (though it really isn’t nearly as good the day after). It’s a meal in a pot; it takes about 30 minutes, start to finish; and it calls for asparagus, which by now you know is a virtue I hold above most others.
Asparagus risotto: pretty straightforward. You’re probably seeing it on restaurant menus everywhere, as I have been. Being slightly particular about my spears, I really dislike when restaurants bury them beneath a heap of rice. Asparagus are wonderful because if you cook them properly, they get crunchy and slick on the outside, coated just so with butter or olive oil, dusted with salt and pepper, completely irresistible. If you add them to risotto too early, they lose their oomph. So I’ve taken to this slightly more finicky (but no more complicated) approach, which keeps the two components of the dish mostly separate until they hit the table, leaving it to the diner to fold rice and asparagus together per their preference. It also makes for a more dramatic presentation, the pool of creamy rice accented with a burst of green on top, and of course, the requisite shower of grated Parmesan.
Here’s the cooking plan: risotto gets made in a wide-bottomed high-sided skillet. When it’s close to done, asparagus go in a little pan right alongside. The two should finish cooking at the same time. Into shallow bowls goes the risotto, then topped with several pieces of asparagus, and finally, a shower of cheese. Dig in.
If I’m not in the mood for rice, I’ll use the same technique with polenta. Asparagus and cornmeal are quite the pair. And, if the mood strikes, I’ll squeeze a wedge of lemon over the whole thing. I love the sour punch that offsets the creamy polenta.
Either way, It’s a dish that celebrates spring, perfect for weeks like this one, when the weather is cold and rainy, but warm sun-filled days seem just around the bend.
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup arborio or carnaroli rice
1/2 cup white wine (whatever’s open, though preferably nothing too sweet)
3-4 cups hot stock (I used homemade vegetable, but chicken would work well here, too)
1 lb. asparagus, rinsed, trimmed, and sliced on a bias into 3-inch segments
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
half a lemon
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Choose your risotto pan: I prefer a skillet with relatively high sides to a pot, but a pot or dutch oven work great, too.
Plop 2 tablespoons butter into the risotto pot, turn the heat to medium, and as the butter melts, add the rice. Stir to coat rice in butter. Your rice will start popping gently – that’s a good sign. You want every kernel coated in the butter.
Once the rice has heated through and a couple of the kernels have toasted a bit, add the wine. Things will sizzle rapidly as the wine boils, and this is good: you want the wine to get a head start on reducing. Once the wine has settled down, add 1 cup of the stock. Stir vigorously to incorporate it with the rice, and to get those kernels moving around. The more they move, the greater trail of starch they leave in their path…and the creamier the risotto.
This is your essential process for the next 20 minutes or so. Add stock by the ladleful, stir to incorporate with the rice, and watch as the rice drinks up the stock. When things get dry in the pan, add another ladle of stock.
Important: taste your stock. Is it salty? If so, your risotto may need only pepper. If not, you want to salt the rice gently as it cooks. Feel free to also taste a kernel or two of rice along the way. They won’t be fully cooked, but it’ll give you a sense of how salty your risotto will be, and it’ll let you adjust before the very end.
When your rice is still raw inside but nearly softened, set a small saute pan over medium heat and add the remaining tablespoon of butter and the olive oil. When the butter has melted, add the asparagus. They’ll cook as you finish up the risotto, and they don’t need much attention – just the occasional shake of the pan to have them turn over and move around. They’ll take between 2-5 minutes, depending on the size of the pan you’re using. Taste one to test for doneness. I like them still a bit crunchy, but you may prefer them softer. As you wish.
When your rice has cooked through, add enough stock that risotto will be pourable. Good risotto spreads when served, and firms up only once it’s on the plate.
When ready to serve, add the mascarpone cheese and squeeze the lemon into the risotto. Stir to incorporate. Add the cheese, stir again, and pour into shallow bowls. Top with asparagus, maybe squeeze that lemon just once more onto each bowl, and serve immediately.