Thursday, April 11, 2013

Fresh Asparagus Risotto

Spring, Spring, Spring by Cast of "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers"
I really hope you've seen this movie.  It's a musical from 1954 starring Howard Keel and Jane Powell and is one of my FAVORITES for very many reasons ~ this song being one of them!  Anyone who has ever had to endure a long, long seemingly never-ending cold and snowy winter, can appreciate the joy and celebration of spring that is conveyed so perfectly through this song's lilting melody and charming lyrics.  "Every field wears a bonnet, with some spring daisies on it."  I mean, come on!!  If you're of the inclination to feel the need to dance about and celebrate the arrival of spring, then this song is for you!  And, if you love the arrival of fresh and vibrant green asparagus, then this recipe is for you!

My Facebook wall is filled with news of friends who are getting new baby chicks, bunnies, puppies, etc.  There are those who are sharing gardening tips as we get ready to plant our gardens.  It's all about new beginnings - and I love the energy!

How happy I am to see the tender stalks of asparagus in the grocery stores once again.
Asparagus is one of those foods that have a Jekyll & Hyde nature.  Many folks out there swear they don't like it.  Asparagus can be pretty unimpressive - and dare I say unpleasant - when presented from a can or after death by boiling.  It is meant to be cooked lightly and quickly, served slightly crisp.  Therefore, it is a quick option for a side dish - even from a fresh state.  It doesn't involve much prep - simply bend the stalk and it snaps where the older - and sometimes woodier - part of the stem begins.  Save those bottom parts in the freezer for when you make some vegetable stock!  After the ends are snapped, you are ready to either blanch them, steam them, grill them, in salads, or do a quick roast in the oven.  With the smaller, more tender spring stalks I don't suggest the roasting, though.

For early spring, I find myself mixing the new fresh produce arrivals with some of the warm and comforting foods - such as risotto.  Risotto is such a wonderful base to showcase other lovely foods.  Of course, in my opinion, it is just perfect on it's own as well.  But I wanted to show off the asparagus today and risotto and asparagus are such a beautiful pair! 

Risotto is made from arborio rice.  
It's an Italian short-grain rice that has a very high starch content that takes a large amount of liquid as it releases it's creamy texture.  I love how beautiful the fat little grains are with their spot of bright white.  It is meant to be cooked, like pasta, to al dente - where it still has some firmness to the bite.  

I made risotto for the first time in culinary school.  I don't think I slept the night before because I was so nervous.  I kept going over in my mind the steps in the process.  Whenever I would hear shows on TV talk about it's preparation it was always accompanied by this sort of reverence for "the process."  It was apparently time-consuming and required exact technique.  I came away with the notion that risotto was not for the novice and was best left to the professionals.  Imagine my happiness when I discovered that it was not difficult or time-consuming at all!  There is a process but it's not a difficult one.  Better yet, I find that the ingredients are widely adaptable!  So many substitutions - so many varieties!

Risotto can be your newest best friend in your meal-planning repertoire ~ as a side dish or the main course.  Oh - and arborio rice makes a lovely rice pudding as well!  Welcome spring ~ and asparagus ~ with this beautifully simple dish!

Fresh Asparagus Risotto
serves 4
12 stalks of asparagus
2 green onions
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T. fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped
1 T. olive oil
1 T. butter
7 oz. arborio rice (200 g)
1 oz. white wine
3 cups chicken stock
1 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated
salt and pepper to taste
extra-virgin olive oil, to drizzle

Place a small pan of water on to boil.  Fill a bowl with ice and water and set aside.  Snap the woody ends off of the bottom of the asparagus and save for stock or discard.  Then trim the top 3 inches of the spear tips and set aside.  Slice the remainder of the stems on the diagonal into 1/4" pieces and set aside.

When the water comes to a boil, place the asparagus tips in and blanch for about 45 seconds.  Remove and immediately immerse in the cold water bath.  This will shock them and keep them from cooking further and retain their color.  Remove from the water and drain.  Set aside.  Repeat the process with the small stem pieces, only blanching them for about 30 seconds.  Remove and immediately shock in the ice water and then remove and drain.  Set aside.

Thinly slice the green onions on the diagonal, separating the white parts from the green stems.

Heat the chicken stock in a small saucepan until just a simmer.

In a skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat until the butter has melted.  (You will think that there is too much oil and butter for the amount of onions, but you need it to coat the rice when it is added.)  Add the white parts of the green onions and sweat them until tender and translucent - about 2 minutes.  Do not let them get brown.  Add the garlic and fresh thyme and stir until fragrant - about a minute.  Add the rice and stir to coat the grains.  The rice will become these beautiful opalescent orbs.  Cook for about 2 minutes until it starts to lightly toast - but you do not want a brown color!  Just lightly on a few grains will let you know it's time.

Add the white wine and stir until it evaporates - about a minute.

Next start adding the hot stock about 1/3 cup at a time.  Stir the liquid into the rice and keep stirring until it has been almost completely absorbed.  Each addition takes about 3 - 4 minutes to absorb.  Once you are able to cut a path through the mixture with your wooden spoon and it stays for about 3 seconds before it closes back up completely, it is time to add the next portion.  This is "the process" for making risotto.  The liquid is introduced in stages, allowing the one addition to be absorbed before adding the next.  Some say you must stay at the stove the entire time, stirring constantly.  While stirring is important, as it helps the starch release, you don't have to be held captive by your stove.  What I do is stay vigilant for the first few additions and then allow myself to putter nearby once the process is on it's way.  Do not let yourself get distracted, though.  

Continue adding the stock in portions until all has been added.  When the last portion has been added and is not quite fully absorbed, stir in the grated parmesan cheese and stir to melt.  Add the blanched asparagus stem slices and the sliced green onion tops and stir to blend.  Season to taste with kosher salt.

Place a scoop of the risotto in a serving dish and top with the asparagus tips and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil (time to break out the good stuff) and some parmesan curls.  A light sprinkling of some additional kosher salt and black pepper over the top is beautiful as well.


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