02 May 2018
I’ve made a big deal this year of the fresh asparagus I’ve been enjoying from my own garden. It’s the first year I’ve been able to pick it, the bed having been planted a couple of years ago. It’s always an act of faith, putting something in the ground that will only begin to deliver after several years. I wasn’t taking it for granted I would still be here (at this house specifically, but the other thing as well) to be reaping the rewards.
One of my favourite spring-time recipes is Risotto Primavera, a version of which was the very first risotto I ever ate (and cooked). Having assumed for an embarrassingly long period of time that risottos, being “just rice”, would be boring to eat, I got seduced into this one by some seriously good food writing. And then, of course, tasting it absolutely blew my mind. There have been risotto dishes since with flavours I love even more, but I retain a huge loyalty and affection for this one.
In retrospect, it was a good one to start with, since at heart it is a base risotto with a few spring vegetables added at the end. All the variations, mashing an ingredient into the base, using an alcohol other than white wine, using a grain other than risotto rice - all these things are worth exploring. But it’s always good to get the basics and then jump off from there, and this is belt and braces a great intro into the fabulous world of risottos.
It’s also one of those dishes that doesn’t really create huge amounts of food waste (unless you greedily make too much, of course). If you’ve bought your asparagus from the supermarket (as I have every other time I’ve made it, before I could smugly pick what I needed from the garden) then you may not use up all the spears in a two-person risotto. But it’s not hard to use up some extra asparagus, is it? Steam the remaining spears and dip them into a soft boiled egg for breakfast, or just add them as a welcome vegetable to whatever you’re having tomorrow.
Incidentally, out of those variations I mentioned, the one I haven’t yet gotten around to is doing a risotto with a different grain, for instance pearl barley. I guess it will have to be done, although I’ve seen some food writers being very sniffy over such innovations arguing that although they may make something palatable, in no way can it be called a risotto. But then I’ve never been ideological about food in that way, so at some point I will try for myself and see how it goes. A project for the summer perhaps.
In the mean time, if you want to celebrate Spring, but the weather’s not yet appropriate for firing up the barbecue, you can do a lot worse than this.
I’ve seen some packets of risotto rice suggest that you should allow 100g of rice per person. Trust me, that’s way more than you need. 75g is about right for the standard healthy appetite. And for this dish, even if never for any other, use as good a quality stock as you can get hold of. It’s so important for the flavour, you’ll be glad you did.
Carnoroli or Arborio rice - 75g per person
500ml good quality chicken or vegetable stock
1 banana shallot, finely chopped
1 125ml glass white wine
2 tablespoons oil
Salt and pepper
A couple of handfuls of frozen garden peas
4 spears of asparagus, sliced in half lengthways
A grating of Parmesan cheese (optional)
Put the stock into a large pan, and gently heat. You want it to be hot when it’s time to add it to the risotto, but you don’t want it boiling away and reducing down (if it does, you can just add water, or if you run out towards the end, likewise).
Heat the oil in a large frying pan and add 25g of the butter. Once that has melted, add the shallot and gently fry over a medium heat until it has softened. Then add the rice, and stir to coat it in the fat. Let if cook for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add the white wine, and stir the rice more or less continuously until the wine has been absorbed.
Add a ladleful of stock, and continue to stir the rice, adding additional ladlefuls when the previous one has been absorbed. It’s important to the final texture that you stir the rice often (I do it pretty much constantly, although some of the literature suggests that doing it often, but not continuously, is fine) and that you only add the next helping of stock once the previous one has mostly been absorbed. Such is the alchemy of a good risotto.
The risotto rice will take between 16 - 18 minutes to cook. Once you’re getting towards the end of this period, add the peas to the mix and stir them in, and put the halved stems of the asparagus into the remaining stock to poach gently in stock while you’re adding the last few ladlefuls to the risotto. After 3 or 4 minutes in the stock, you can remove the asparagus and keep warm.
After 16 minutes, taste the risotto. The rice, when cooked, should be creamy (all that stirring activates the starch) but retain just a little bite. If it’s cooked, add one last ladle of stock and stir in the remaining 25g of butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and then serve straight away with the asparagus arranged on top. Grate a little Parmesan cheese over the top if you like, although it’s quite tasty enough without.