Those ramps were just the beginning of the seasonal bounty at the farmer’s market, and every week, more produce begins to appear. While we’re still a long ways out from edible tomatoes and the peak of harvest season, there’s some terrific springtime favorites available. This week, I made a slightly fancier than average (three courses!) meal for myself and a friend that really highlights what’s at the market these days. Part one is below, and parts two and three will follow later this week.
While ramps may be springtime’s fantasy for foodie’s, asparagus is its workhorse. Served raw in salads, steamed as a side, chopped in pasta, wrapped in bacon, or shoved in a bloody mary, asparagus is omnipresent on menus these days. Around this time a year ago, the New York Times ran a piece by Mark Bittman about Mario Batali’s asparagus risotto recipe that really defied some risotto-making conventions. This weekend, with my vegetable crisper stuffed full of asparagus, I decided to revisit that recipe…
Risotto is my go-to dish for entertaining. It’s impressive, and here’s the dirty secret, stupidly easy. If Batali tasted some of the many risotti that I’ve made over the past few years, he’d probably decry many of them as inauthentic, but the truth is that when you use as much butter, cheese, and chicken stock as is usually involved in risotto, it’s gonna taste pretty darn good. I have found risotto to be far more forgiving than cookbooks would have you believe. Just add stock slowly and taste regularly, and you will be fine.
This recipe, with its asparagus puree, is probably not the best one on which to cut your risotto-making teeth (for that, try Claire’s mushroom risotto), but it does contain a revelation that should make people more relaxed about risotto in general: You absolutely do not have to stir it constantly. This is a big myth propagated by the spoon lobby. Watch the video. Batali barely touches the risotto until the very end. Just a stir every now and then to keep the rice from sticking to the pan is fine.
This, actually, I think is a good general note to people just learning to cook: LEAVE IT THE HELL ALONE! That chicken breast isn’t going to cook any faster with you poking, prodding, and flipping it all the time. Believe it or not, heat is still transferred when you’re not jabbing tongs into the meat. In fact, that chicken will cook EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE KITCHEN WITH IT! Put the tongs down, and step away from the chicken. It will be hard at first, but you’ll thank me in the end.
Before I give you the recipe, I want to make a few additional comments:
1. The asparagus can be prepped and the stems pureed several hours before you’re actually ready to cook. This will make things easier on you if you’re entertaining:
2. Read the recipe, then watch the video. NO WAY is the amount of butter in the recipe what Batali puts in. I think he dumped in about half a pound, but I upped the the amount in the recipe by about a tablespoon. I was pleased with the results.
3. To prep asparagus, grab a stalk by either end and snap it in half. Most of the time, you would then discard the bottom end, but for this recipe, I used the top half of the bottom end in the puree. The reason this is usually tossed is that it’s woody and tough, but after boiling and blending, it’s perfectly fine.
4. Buon’ appetito.
Time: 45 minutes
1 pound asparagus, peeled, trimmed and cut into one-inch-long pieces, tips reserved
4 to 6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 medium red onion, diced
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
Salt to taste
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese.
1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add half the asparagus stalks and cook until quite soft, at least 5 minutes. Rinse quickly under cold water. Put cooked asparagus in a blender or food processor and add just enough water to allow machine to puree until smooth; set aside.
2. Put stock in a medium saucepan over low heat. Put oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a large, deep nonstick skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, add onion, stirring occasionally until it softens, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Add rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is glossy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add white wine, stir, and let liquid bubble away. Add a large pinch of salt. Add warmed stock, 1/2 cup or so at a time, stirring occasionally. Each time stock has just about evaporated, add more.
4. After about 15 minutes, add remaining asparagus pieces and tips, continuing to add stock when necessary. In 5 minutes, begin tasting rice. You want it to be tender but with a bit of crunch; it could take as long as 30 minutes total to reach this stage. When it does, stir in 1/2 cup asparagus puree. Remove skillet from heat, add remaining butter and stir briskly. Add Parmesan and stir briskly, then taste and adjust seasoning. Risotto should be slightly soupy. Serve immediately.
Yield: 3 to 4 servings.