Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Asparagus risotto offers a preview of spring

You may have noticed that risotto is a fairly frequent player in the ever changing cast of characters on our dinner table.  I love risotto for lots of reasons: It's nutritious and filling, a great way to use up leftovers, and made well, it's a dish of some refinement.

Risotto suffers a bad rap as a dish that requires constant attention, and indeed it does require fairly regular stirring. But "constant" stirring is a bit of an overstatement.   Keep an eye on it, put on some good music when you cook, and get into the zone.  Fifteen minutes of prep time, 25 minutes of cooking time, and dinner is on.

Like many of my generation, I didn't grow up with risotto. My idea of Italian cuisine was formed by the Southern Italian immigrant tradition of family cooking, aromatic red-sauced pasta dishes and pizza.  But it didn't take me long to learn about risotto, and for me, this dish was love at first sight.

I probably discovered it in the late 1970s, in Marcella Hazan's formative cookbooks, or perhaps from Margaret and Franco Romagnoli on public television, but I know for sure that I was making risotto before any Louisville restaurants were serving it.  It was a joy to taste the real thing on a trip to Rome, Umbria and Tuscany in 1982, and in Genoa the year after. Since those days, I've probably made risotto 1,000 times - maybe more - and tasted it all over Northern Italy and at restaurants in the U.S.  It never bores me, and I'll less than modestly declare that after all that practice I can make risotto about as well as any American or Italian chef I've encountered.  Iron Chef Risotto, anyone?

Last night's dish was a simple version made with fresh asparagus, browned onions and garlic, finished with Grana Padano cheese and, alla Marcella, a chunk of Parma butter.  To intensify the asparagus flavor, I broke off the woody ends of the stalks, simmered them in lightly salted water for about 10 minutes to make a simple broth; discarded the stems, used the same water to parboil the asparagus stalks (cut in 1-inch lengths) to crisp-tender, then used this double broth as the risotto liquid.  I added in the asparagus, a little at a time, as the risotto cooked, to achieve a range of textures from some long-simmered bits to a few still al-dente ones.

I used 1/2 cup of arborio rice, hoping to have a little left over, but it was too good not to finish; a reasonable ration for two.