Ah April, when the asparagus stalks emerge all spindly from the bare ground and plump violet spring onions are bunched for sale at the market. One of our local farms has a pick-your-own asparagus field, which I visit on my way back from the farmers’ market on Saturday. It’s rejuvenating to know that our local earth is starting to produce our daily meals once again. And yet the weather, ever so fickle (climate change?) vacillates between a dry 80 degrees and below 50 in a chilling rain. That’s when spring risotto comes in. It perfectly balances our yen for the freshest ingredients with the comfort of a warm and unctuous, satisfying dish.
Risotto is not hard to make, and it is not particularly time-consuming when you realize that it can be a meal-in-one in about 30 minutes, including a little prep time. Sometimes when I make vegetable-laden risotto, I cook the rice and vegetables separately. While this is my typical practice with asparagus, I realized that adding finely cut raw asparagus at the end of the cooking time works well, especially since the young vegetable mellows under little heat. I said 5 minutes in my recipe since that’s what I did, but it could be less. The other trick here was to cook the trimmings from the asparagus (just the ends here but peeled lower skin later in the season) to flavor the stock or broth, adding to the asparagus experience. I separately cooked a spear or two for garnish and considered adding a garnish of lemon zesty to pique the flavors.
Vegetarians can use vegetable stock instead of chicken and dairy-free folk can simply omit the butter and cheese.
1 small bunch asparagus
4-5 cups chicken stock or vegetable broth
1 medium spring onion or leek, white/violet and light green parts only (or use scallions)
Olive oil and/or butter (about 1 tbsp)
1 cup Arborio rice
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (or to taste)
Salt to taste
Optional: lemon zest, garnish of steamed asparagus
Snap the ends from the asparagus, rinse them well to remove any grit, and add them to a saucepan containing the chicken stock or vegetable broth. (If your asparagus is woody as it sometimes is later in the season, peel the ends and add the peelings to the liquid.) Bring the liquid to a simmer and cook slowly for 15 minutes.
Cut the asparagus into ¼-inch slices and set aside if cooking with the risotto, or parboil it separately for a few minutes in boiling water and drain, setting it aside to add at the end.
Split the spring onion or leek in half vertically and then slice it crosswise. If using scallions, cut them (white and light green part only) into ¼-inch slices.
Saute the onion slowly in the oil and/or butter. Add the rice and stir to coat. Add 1/3 cup of stock, turn the heat to medium low or low (so it just simmers) and stir until the stock is absorbed. When the liquid is absorbed, add another 1/3 cup of stock, wait until it’s absorbed, stirring occasionally, and then repeat until the rice is tender but still al dente. This process will take about 20-25 minutes. About 5 minutes before the risotto is finished (when it is getting tender but still a little chewy), add the reserved asparagus pieces, stirring them well. (Alternatively, you can cook the asparagus separately and add it at the end.) When the risotto is finished, add the grated cheese, season to taste with salt and a pinch or so of lemon zest if you choose. Serves 4.