Because the asparagus season is past but the flavors linger on, I wrote this paean to one of my favorite vegetables and one of my favorite ways of cooking: Risotto.
With a totally undeserved reputation for being difficult and tiresome to cook–all that standing and stirring over a hot stove–risotto in my kitchen is what we turn to for a quick, delicious meal, especially if unexpected company arrives for supper. June is a splendid time for the last of the season’s asparagus, but this basic recipe could be adapted for all kinds of vegetables–think fresh green peas, or ripe tomatoes and sweet red peppers in August, or maybe butternut squash in the fall. They all fall into the same pattern, which is:
Sauté very gently in olive oil or unsalted butter some finely chopped aromatics (onions, garlic, parsley) along with the principal flavoring ingredient (in this case, asparagus, the tender stalks only, broken into inch long pieces), then stir in the rice and let it absorb some of the fat. (Italian chefs call this latostatura.) Add a little white wine and as soon as it is absorbed, start adding stock (chicken, beef, vegetable) which you will have on the side, just barely simmering. Add it in increments of ¼ to ½ cup, and stir it in. As soon as the stock is absorbed, add more, stirring the while, until the rice is done–cooked through but still with a little bite in the center. This should take just 20 to 30 minutes and in the end the rice should be what Venetians call all’onda, meaning thick with liquid but not the least bit soupy. When done, add more butter and grated cheese if you wish, cover the pan and let it rest for 10 to 20 minutes before serving.
I’ve been using Casino Oschiena’s carnaroli rice, available from The Rogers Collection. This short-grain rice is grown in naturally flooded fields in the Vercelli, the rice-growing heart of Italy’s Piemonte region. (Carnaroli is not a brand but rather a variety or cultivar.) The starchy veneer of the rice grains develops just the right creamy, almost velvety coating.
To make 6 to 8 servings:
- 6 cups stock (chicken, beef, vegetable)
- 1 ½ to 2 pounds fresh asparagus
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil (or use part oil and part butter if you prefer)
- 1 medium yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
- Sea salt to taste
- 1 garlic clove, chopped
- About ¼ cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 2 cups Oschiena carnaroli or arborio rice
- ½ cup dry white wine
- ½ to ¾ cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano or grana padano cheese
- 1 or 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Bring the stock to a simmer and continue to simmer it very gently while you prepare the risotto.
Prepare the asparagus, discarding the tough ends and breaking the stalks into inch long pieces. Break off the flowering tips of the asparagus and set aside to be added later as a contrast.
Add oil to a heavy kettle or saucepan large enough to hold all the rice when cooked. Set it over medium low heat and stir in the onion and salt. Turn to coat well with fat and as the onion starts to sizzle, add the garlic and parsley. Once the onion slices begin to soften, add the asparagus stalk pieces. Cook gently until the onion is soft and melting but not brown and the asparagus has started to go limp.
Stir the rice into the vegetables, mixing well. Cook for several minutes or until the rice starts to change color, becoming chalky white, and to sizzle in the fat. Add the wine, raise the heat slightly, and cook, stirring, until the wine has been absorbed.
Now start adding simmering stock, a half-cup at a time, stirring after each addition. As soon as the rice has absorbed the liquid, add more, continuing, ladle by ladle. There should always be liquid visible in the pan–i.e., the rice should never be let to dry out. But don’t add all the liquid at once–this will result in boiled rice rather than velvety-textured risotto. After 15 minutes, when the rice is almost done, stir in the reserved asparagus heads.
You may not need to use all the stock but if it happens that you use it up, simply add boiling water instead. The important thing is to keep adding liquid until the rice is done–al dente, with a bit of a bite in the center, each grain well coated with the sauce which will be dense and almost syrupy. The pieces of asparagus stalk will be very soft while the heads will retain some pleasant texture.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in about ¼ cup of the cheese, the butter if you wish, and the pepper. Immediately cover the pan and set it aside for 10 to 15 minutes before serving, with the remaining cheese passed at the table.