I have far too few asparagus plants in my orto. But every year asparagus planting time (late March) creeps up on me stealthily and finds me, once again, not only without a new asparagus bed dug but with no idea whatsoever of where I would put one even if I had the time to make it.
So when mine start appearing, I resort to padding them out with store-bought ones. Even when they’re cooked and served up, though, I still believe I can tell which pieces are mine and which aren’t. I don’t think I’m deluding myself…
I recommend the bright green Italian asparagus rather than the white French kind: the taste is incomparably better. If you can lay your hands on tiny skinny wild asparagus this is even better – though unless you’re very fortunate you’ll probably have to venture out into the countryside and get your hands scratched to pieces by vicious asparagus plants to procure this exquisite-tasting luxury.
And I recommend making the simplest, most classic risotto possible. You need nothing more than the flavour of asparagus.
Asparagus – large bunch, at least 1 kg but the more the better
Rice – 350 g round risotto rice: vialone nano or originario is best
Onion – 1 large, white or brown
Garlic – 1 clove
White wine – 100 ml
Parmesan – to taste
If you’re using pre-prepared vegetable stock, bring a litre of it to the boil; otherwise, boil a kettle. How much water/stock you’ll need depends entirely on the kind of rice you use and can vary immensely.
Peel the onion and garlic and slice then mince them finely. Put a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan, heat it up and gently cook the onions and garlic until they are soft but not brown. Add the rice and stir it into the onions.
When the rice is thoroughly heated through, pour in the wine. Let it sizzle over a medium heat until the wine has more or less evaporated, then add enough water/stock just to cover the rice, and keep the contents of the pan bubbling gently.
As it bubbles, prepare the asparagus. First, break off the tips – about two centimetres – and set them aside. Now, starting from the tip end, break off similar lengths from each stalk. If it breaks off cleanly and crisply, then it will be good to eat. The moment it becomes difficult to snap, you’re getting down to the woody bit of the stalk, which should be discarded if you don’t want stringy bits of asparagus getting stuck in your teeth.
All the while, keep the rice bubbling. As soon as the liquid shows signs of disappearing, add a little more. You’ll need to stir from time to time to stop the risotto sticking, but try to keep this to a minimum. After eight-ten minutes, throw in the pieces of asparagus stalk, keeping the tips aside. (If you’re using stock cubes, you can crumble one in now as well.)
Continue to add liquid, tasting the rice from time to time to see how done it is. When it’s still hard right in the middle but very close to being ready, throw in the asparagus tips too: timing is vital here, as they need to cook for about five or six minutes – any more will turn them soggy. Your last lot of liquid should go in soon after the tips: let this bubble away gently as the rice releases its last bits of starch, giving you a perfect, creamy risotto. Turn off the heat under the frying pan.
Now it’s time to add the parmesan. I generally use a double cupped handful of finely grated cheese. Add this to the rice, stir it in gently, and leave your risotto to sit for about five minutes. Called mantecando, this stage is vital if you want your risotto to be perfectly balanced and blended. You can add more parmesan later, when you serve the risotto (a good grating of black pepper goes very well too). But it’s the cheese you put in at this stage which lends the dish its real flavour, perfectly complementing the asparagus.
Serve the risotto hot, sprinkled with a little more parmesan if you wish, and with a generous amount of black pepper.
© Anne Hanley, 2012