When late April hits and we have a few warm days, I start scouring the roadside stands for signs that fresh asparagus has arrived. I had my heart set on making a spring vegetable risotto for May and the press deadline left little wiggle room for finding my prize. A knock on the door and a care package left on my doorstep by the kindly Kim Dyla (aka @the scratchiest), yielded home baked treats and a dozen fresh spears of her homegrown asparagus. Oh joy! I easily procured some local leeks and spinach and supplemented those cool weather stars with fresh herbs from my garden and some supermarket finds. Creamy and comforting risotto is one of my favorite meals and I make it year-round, yet nothing compares with the first bowl made with that local asparagus.
Risotto is very forgiving provided you follow a few simple rules. My top three are 1. use imported Italian rice, 2. the first sauté of the grain is essential to achieving the right texture and flavor and 3. keep stirring to release the starch and keep it creamy. You can make a richer dish by adding more cheese and butter than I have specified. When I am including tender spring vegetables, I use less. I included two tablespoons of mascarpone cheese for added creaminess, but feel free to add an extra tablespoon of butter in its place. The finished product should be quite loose and liquid, so add extra boiling stock or water at the end of cooking if needed.
1 cup sugar snap peas
1 leek, pale green and white part only
12 asparagus spears
1/2 cup fresh shell peas or frozen baby peas
1 cup sugar snap peas
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. butter
1 3/4 cups imported arborio rice
1 3/4 cup minced shallots (about one large shallot)
1 cup white wine
2 quarts of vegetable stock or water
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 cup finely grated parmesan
2 Tbsp. mascarpone cheese
Large handful of parsley, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
Small bunch of chives
Sea salt and black pepper
Prepare the Vegetables
Clean and finely slice the leek. Cut the sugar snap peas in half and trim the end and any stringy bits. Remove any tough ends from the asparagus and discard. Cut off the asparagus tips and set aside, cut the thinner stalks into one-inch lengths and the thicker pieces into thin rounds.
Melt one Tbsp. oil and one Tbsp. butter in a heavy skillet, add the leeks and gently sauté for a couple of minutes, before adding the sugar snap peas. Cook for a further two minutes, stirring from time to time. Wash and dry the parsley and chop finely.
Blanch the asparagus tips and stalks (not the rounds), in boiling salted water for one minute. Remove to a strainer and run under cold water to stop cooking. Drain on paper towels.
Make the Risotto
Have all the ingredients prepared and on hand before you start cooking. You will need a large heavy pan to cook the risotto, plus a ladle, a large metal spoon and a pan for the stock or water. Bring the pan of stock (if you are using water, add two tsp. salt) to a boil and lower the heat until it is simmering. It is important to keep the stock at a simmer throughout the cooking process.
Heat 1 Tbsp. butter and 1 Tbsp. olive oil over low heat in the large saucepan. Add the shallots and cook on medium-low for two to three minutes, until softened but not browned.
Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, for about five minutes, until all the rice grains are coated in the butter/oil mixture and are slightly translucent.
Turn heat up to medium and pour in the wine. Keep stirring the mixture until all the wine is absorbed. Start adding the stock or water, a couple ladlefuls at a time, stirring until it is all absorbed, and continue the process, keeping the mixture bubbling and never letting it dry out.
After about 15 minutes total, stir in the asparagus rounds and, after one minute, fold in the peas, snap peas and leeks. Test the rice for doneness. It should be tender with a very slight bite to it. Keep cooking until it reaches this stage, adding more water or stock to keep the risotto loose and soupy in consistency. Risotto should take 20-25 minutes to cook to perfection. Once the rice is done, turn off the heat, stir in 3 Tbsp. butter, 2 Tbsp. of mascarpone, 1 Tbsp. parsley and and 3/4 cup (reserve the rest for garnish) grated parmesan. Taste and adjust for salt if needed and add a few twists of fresh black pepper. Snip the chives into the risotto using a pair of kitchen scissors.
Serve in warmed shallow bowls, garnish with asparagus tips, extra chives and parsley, and a generous sprinkling of parmesan.