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Asparagus Risotto
By Charlie Burke

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This spring, we have gone from snow covered fields just a couple of weeks ago
to green grass and blooming spring flowers.

We nearly missed my favorite early spring wild flower, bloodroot, which came
into bloom before our snow banks had melted. We barely got our asparagus
beds cleaned and fertilized by the time the first shoots appeared this week, and
a couple of nights in the twenties have turned a few brown.

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly our rhubarb and asparagus begin
growing within days of having been covered in snow, but this is spring in New
Hampshire, and  we know that we will be picking in just a few days. Initially,
we serve them simply, either sautéed in olive oil or butter or boiled in a small
volume of salted water until they turn bright green and just begin to soften. The
great flavor of fresh asparagus is best when the stalks are barely cooked, but,
unfortunately, overcooking asparagus is a common error.

After a week or two of preparing them simply, I’ll make soup or pasta with
asparagus, and asparagus risotto is a favorite in our house. For the photograph
of this week’s recipe, I must confess I used asparagus from a state to our south,
but very soon local asparagus will be showing up at farm stands and farmers
markets, as well as in markets selling local produce. A common misconception
is that thinner stalks are best, but thick stalks are from the healthiest plants and
are more tender.

Risotto is a uniquely Italian method of preparing rice served throughout
northern Italy, where much rice is grown. It has acquired a mystique, and many
cooks consider it too complicated to make at home. While it takes nearly a half
hour to cook and, like most dishes, attention to a few details is necessary for
proper results, it is not difficult to prepare. Once mastered, risotto is adaptable
to many ingredients, from fresh vegetables to seafood and meat.

When entertaining, we share some cheese and a glass of wine with our guests
who enjoy seeing it prepared, and the evening starts at a relaxing pace. We
serve it with a simple salad and crusty bread for a satisfying and authentic
meal. Risotto is also one of my favorite answers to “what are we having for
dinner”, and I can prepare
risotto in a pressure cooker  in less than fifteen
minutes. Although not quite as creamy and flavorful as risotto made
traditionally, it is better than many I’ve had in restaurants.

All recipes call for sautéing onions or leeks in olive oil or butter, “toasting” the
rice with the onion and oil, and then adding warm stock slowly to the rice,
which is stirred frequently. Cooking continues for approximately twenty
minutes, as the rice slowly absorbs the liquid, which is added ladle by ladle.
Some ingredients, such as mushrooms, are added at the beginning, but those
more delicate, such as shrimp or asparagus, are added at the end. The final step
involves mixing in some butter and, unless seafood is being used, a cup or so of
freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

It is essential that short grain starchy rice be used in order to achieve the dense
creamy consistency desired. The most common variety is Arborio, which is
found in nearly all markets, while the finest (and most expensive) is Carnaroli,
which is considered the finest. Arborio makes excellent risotto and is what I
nearly always use, but if I come across Carnaroli I will use it for special
occasions and would never use it in the pressure cooker.

The liquid used is important. In Italy, a broth made from veal, beef and,
perhaps, some chicken is usually used in all but seafood risotto, where either
water or a mixture of water and fish stock is used. I use homemade chicken
stock often, but I avoid canned broth or stocks, which do not do well as their
flavors  concentrate during cooking. Good quality bouillon cubes work well,
especially those from Italy labeled Brodo Classico, although they should be
prepared with double the volume of water to avoid concentrating their salt.

Four servings:

2 cups Arborio or Canaroli rice
1 medium onion, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
Approximately 6 cups good quality broth or stock (see above), warmed
1 large bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper
¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for passing at the table

In a sauté pan over medium-high heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter and add
chopped asparagus. Cook for 3-4 minutes until asparagus is bright green but
still slightly crisp Remove the pan from the heat.

Place a heavy pot over medium heat and add the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of
the butter. When the oil shimmers, add the onion and cook, stirring until
translucent, and then add the rice. Stir the rice until all the grains are well
coated with the butter/oil mixture. Add the wine, stirring the rice until the wine
is absorbed.

Add the liquid ¾ cup at a time and stir frequently, adding more liquid as it is
absorbed (a spatula dragged across the bottom leaves the bottom exposed).
Continue adding liquid in this manner, stirring to prevent sticking, for 15– 20
minutes, until the rice is al dente – cooked, but firm to the bite with no white,
chalky center in the grains. You will probably use 4 ½ - 5 cups of stock. Add
water if all the stock is used before the rice is cooked.

Stir in the asparagus and the remaining butter and mix thoroughly. Add salt
and pepper to taste, mix in the Parmesan and serve immediately.

I chose to partially cook the asparagus separately because the cooking time of
the rice varies making it difficult to time adding uncooked asparagus to the
risotto, but adding it at after approximately three cups of stock have been
absorbed will avoid this extra step and the asparagus will probably not be
overcooked.

Risotto does not hold well, so plan to serve it immediately when it is done. A
dry white wine, such as a Pinot Grigio or a medium Pinot Noir would go well
with this risotto.

In parts of Italy, risotto is as common as pasta dishes. Become familiar with
making it, and you will find it not only easy for family dinners, but also your
dinner guests will appreciate your efforts.

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association, president of the NH Farm
to Restaurant Connection and helps run the Sanbornton (NH) Farmers' Market.  Along
with his wife, Joanne, Charlie grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather
Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.  
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