I love risotto. One of my first columns 15 years ago featured a recipe for this lovely amalgamation of Italian rice.
Risotto is quite the chameleon and will embrace the best of what any season has to offer. Spring is one of the best times to make a risotto as fresh asparagus and green peas hit the market.
There has developed a huge fallacy that great risotto is not a dish to be tried at home. But risotto is too versatile, too easy and too good to be reserved only for a restaurant plate. The marriage of three basic components – rice, a flavorful cooking liquid and a simple technique – creates a bold, yet tender dish. In 20 minutes or so, with a few ingredients and a good wooden spoon, the splendid creaminess of risotto can come alive in your kitchen.
Spring’s young asparagus and green peas are naturals. Once you know the method, even leftovers can reach greatness as a risotto.
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The method starts when you chose the “riso.” Italian rices have a slightly immature area of starch, which allows for risotto’s creaminess and an al dente bite. Arborio is the most traditional rice used for risotto. Vialone Nano is more expensive and yields a firmer texture. Italian rice really is superior for risotto, but you can in a pinch use long grain rice. The cooking process begins by sauteing some shallots, onions or garlic in a hot fat then adding the rice to coat and toast the rice. Don’t rush. Stir the rice so each grain gets coated with the fat. Let the rice’s nuttiness develop.
In another pot, bring your liquid to a simmer. The warm broth doesn’t shock the risotto and helps to bring out the starches. Add the liquid a half cup at a time. Give it time to be absorbed by rice. And stir gently, not like you’re paddling against the current on the Mississippi. Enjoy the process; it can be very therapeutic. Don’t get excited about what type of pot, stirring just in one direction or any other labor-intensive hype – although I do like my wooden spoon for risotto. Risotto is always best served immediately, but can be made ahead following the instructions below. One caveat: Once you add the cheese or final butter, you are committed.
And I’ve also discovered that making risotto is like Tom Sawyer painting a fence: Everybody wants to help. So overcome the fallacy and enjoy the versatility of this Italian import.
Fred Thompson is a Raleigh cookbook author and publisher of Edible Piedmont magazine. His latest cookbook is “The Kamado Grill Cookbook.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 pound asparagus, sliced in 1-inch pieces
2 quarts homemade poultry stock or 1 quart low sodium chicken broth mixed with 1 quart water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, finely minced (about 3 tablespoons)
1 small yellow onion, peeled and diced
2 cups Arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 teaspoons grated lemon zest, divided
3 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, divided
1 cup fresh or frozen, thawed green peas
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, or more to taste
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped chives
Make a light asparagus broth: Place half the stalk pieces in a saucepan with the broth. Bring to a boil, reduce and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. (Can be made a day ahead, cooled and refrigerated). Finely dice the remaining stalk pieces and reserve.
Heat the butter and oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the shallots and onions and cook until soft. Stir in the rice until coated with the butter and oil. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the white wine, and stir the mixture until evaporated. Add 2 teaspoons each of zest and thyme.
Heat the broth at a low simmer. Add the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, gently stirring each time, letting the rice absorb the broth. After about 15 minutes of adding broth and stirring, bite a grain of rice to see how firm it is. The risotto should be getting tender and creamy. Add the rest of the asparagus. Continue adding broth until the rice is tender and creamy, about 2 or 3 more additions. Stir in the green peas just before the last addition of broth. Taste for salt and pepper. Stir in the cheese. Add the lemon juice, remaining zest and thyme. Stir in the chives. Serve as fast as you can.
NOTE: When the risotto is about 75 percent done – usually at about 15 minutes –you can stop and reserve the risotto to finish later. Spread the risotto on a baking pan, let cool, then wrap tightly. To finish, reheat the remaining broth; place the reserved risotto into its saucepan and stir in 1/2 cup of broth. Bring the heat up under the risotto pot, and finish as above.
Yield: 4 entrees or 8 appetizers.