Thursday, May 28, 2009


So it’s asparagus season again. My three-year old bed is producing more abundantly than last year, and we had Asparagus Risotto with our first cuttings. Risotto is a northern Italian braised rice dish. It has some common elements with pilaf and paella, in that the rice absorbs a broth and other ingredients are added, but it is a unique dish unto itself. Italian short grain rice must be used to create an authentic risotto. Long or short grain American rice or basmati rice will not work. Risotto is not boiled rice.

Risotto is based on indigenous rice strains, like Arborio and Carnaroli, which evolved in Lombardy and Piedmont in northern Italy. In the Veneto, Vialone Nano is preferred, where risotto is prepared “wavy” like risi e bisi, or rice and beans, a soupy risotto-like dish. Risotto is actually a technique for preparing these short grain rice kernels by gradually adding a liquid, like brodo or stock, which slowly dissolves the rice’s exterior starch, amylopectin, which combines with the rice and broth resulting in a creamy liaison with other ingredients; cheese, meat, vegetables or seafood. Risotto is velvety and sticky; the rice kernels are homogenized with the flavor base while still retaining an al dente bite.

A thick-bottomed saucepan is needed and medium heat. A simmering pot of broth or stock is preferred, but water is also used. The total amount of liquid will be about 4 times the volume of rice being cooked. The rice is never washed and never covered, and it is stirred frequently, if not constantly, requiring diligent attention during the cooking process. Some cooks use a wooden spoon, others insist on a fork to fluff the rice to avoid breaking the kernels as they approach doneness. Butter is required as the cooking lipid, although small amounts of extra-virgin olive oil can be added, but detract from authenticity. Onion is the only required aromatic, but garlic, minced carrot and celery often are included. The aromatics are cooked until they are dry and exude the butter, and then the rice is toasted in the hot fat a few minutes. Wine is used to deglaze the pan, and is allowed to totally evaporate before the first ladles of broth are added. As a result of adding the broth gradually and allowing it to be absorbed by the rice while constantly stirring, the starch is slowly released, and amalgamates with the rice kernels and the flavor base to produce a truly satisfying dish.

Risotto is traditionally finished off the heat with a knob of butter and a handful of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese stirred in. It is allowed to stand for a few minutes, and then served warm as a first course, or it can be a main meal with a salad and some crusty bread.

If you ever have left over risotto, it makes great risotto balls when breaded and deep fried, usually with a morsel of fresh mozzarella or gorgonzola inserted inside, or as risotto cakes, which can be rolled in dried breadcrumbs, or not, and sauted for a few minutes to warm them through.

Wild Mushroom Risotto


* Extra-virgin olive oil
* 2 cloves garlic, smashed with heel your hand
* 1 1/2 pounds assorted fresh mushrooms, such as shiitake, oyster or cremini, cleaned and sliced
* Kosher salt
* 1 cup dried porcini mushrooms, soaking in 3 cups hot water
* 1 medium or 2 small onions, cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 1/2 cups)
* 2 cups Carnaroli or Arborio rice
* 2 cups dry white wine
* 6 to 7 cups hot chicken stock
* 2 tablespoons butter
* 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano
* 1/2 cup chopped chives


Coat a large saute pan generously with olive oil and add the smashed garlic cloves. Bring to a medium-high heat. When the garlic cloves have begun to brown and are very aromatic remove and discard them. Add the assorted fresh mushrooms to the pan and season with salt. Saute the mushrooms until they are soft and pliable. Turn off the heat and reserve.

Using your hand, carefully scoop the porcini mushrooms out of the hot water. (At this point the water should have cooled off significantly. If it is still too hot for your hand, use a slotted spoon.) Pour the top 2/3 of the mushroom water into another container and reserve for use while making the risotto. Discard the bottom third. It contains a lot of sand and dirt from the mushrooms. Puree the re-hydrated mushrooms with a little of the reserved mushroom water to make a smooth mushroom paste. This will not look good but it will certainly taste good! Reserve.

Coat a large saucepot abundantly with olive oil. Add the onions and season generously with salt. Bring the pot to a medium-high heat. Cook the onions, stirring frequently until they are very soft and aromatic but have no color. Add the rice and stir to coat with the olive oil. Cook the rice for 2 to 3 minutes to toast, stirring frequently. Add wine to cover the surface of the rice and stir frequently until it has completely absorbed. Add the reserved mushroom water and then add chicken stock until the liquid has covered the surface of the rice. Stir frequently until the stock has absorbed into the rice. Repeat this process 2 more times. Check for seasoning, you probably will need to add salt.

During the third addition of stock, add the reserved sauteed mushrooms and 2 tablespoons of the pureed porcini mushrooms. When the stock has absorbed into the rice and the rice is cooked but still "al dente", remove the pot from the heat. Add the butter and cheese and whip until well combined. This will set the perfect consistency of the rice. The rice should flow and not be able to hold its shape and look very creamy. Serve immediately garnished with chives.

Asparagus Risotto

1 lb. asparagus, tips removed and stalks cut on the bias into 1" pieces
1 onion, chopped fine
salt & pepper
2 tbl. butter
1 cup Arbrorio or Carnaroli rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
5-6 cups stock or water
1-2 tbl room temperature butter
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmiagiano-Reggiano cheese

Have a pot of stock or water simmering on the side. Simmer the cut asparagus stalks, but not the tips, in the stock for 3 minutes. Remove with to a dish for later in the recipe. Keep the asparagus tips separately.

Melt the butter in a large skillet and saute the onion with a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper until the onion is opaque, 4 or 5 minutes. Add the rice and saute in the hot butter 2 to 3 minutes. Deglaze with the white wine and stir constantly until the wine evaporates completely. Slowly add hot stock with a 2 or 3 oz ladle, stirring between additions until the stock is absorbed by the rice. Continue to add stock in small amounts, and stir constantly. After 18 minutes or so the rice will still retain a bite at its center. Add the cooked asparagus stalks, turn off the heat, add the butter and grated cheese. Stir vigorously for a minute or do, garnish with the asparagus tips and a final dusting of grated Parmiagiano-Reggianno cheese.

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