One of the most common ways of cooking rice in Italy is making risotto – a creamy, delicious dish to which a variety of vegetables, fish, or meat can be added. You begin with Arborio rice, which is a fat, short – grained rice that absorbs more liquid than long grain rice and becomes slightly sticky. We enjoyed this version containing only vegetables as a main dish,topped with minced fresh herbs and lemon (gremolata), and accompanied only some tiny cheese souffles from the freezer. Smaller portions make a wonderful side dish for grilled meats and fish. I adapted my recipe from one in Cook’s Illustrated. This is a pot of tastiness that is worth every minute spent in preparation! The key to making this stress free is prepping the veggies ahead of time, assembling all other ingredients, and keeping the chicken broth simmering while the early assembly and cooking are done. It truly is not that difficult if you follow the steps and remember that this isn’t fast food!
Risotto with Spring Vegetables
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
5 Tablespoons butter, divided for use at different times. Use 1/2 olive oil and 1/2 butter if you prefer.
1 pound of asparagus
4 medium leeks
4 cups chicken broth
3 cups of water
1/2 cup frozen green peas
2 garlic cloves
1 1/2 cups white wine
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
juice from 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
Lemon zest, 1/2 teaspoon
1. Remove leaves from parsley and mint and mince finely. Put into small bowl and add zest. Set aside for use as topping. This is called Gremolata.
2. Rinse asparagus, break off woody part of stems by holding each spear between your fingers at the halfway mark and bend. The spears will snap where the tough part starts. Save the ends to simmer in the chicken broth, and slice the spears diagonally in 1/2 inch pieces.
3. Rinse leeks carefully, trip roots and cut off only the white and pale green. Cut the ends of leaves into a rough chop, and save for the chicken broth. Slice the white part in thin rounds.
4. Pour 4 cups of chicken broth and 3 cups of water into large pot, add trimmings from asparagus and leeks and herb stalks. Bring to a low boil, then reduce heat to simmer. After about 15 to 20 minutes, strain the broth, or lift out the pieces of vegetable, then return broth to simmer.
5. While broth is simmering, melt 1 Tablespoon butter in large Dutch oven or soup pot. Add cut asparagus and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally about 4 minutes. Add 1/2 cup frozen peas, heat and stir briefly. Take asparagus and peas out and set aside to add back in later.
6. Melt another 3 Tablespoons butter in same pot. Add leeks, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Cook until leeks are softened. Add rice and cook, stirring, for 3 or 4 minutes, or until grains of rice begin to look translucent around edges. Add wine and continue cooking, stirring frequently until the wine is absorbed (2 -3 minutes)
7. After wine is absorbed, add 3 cups of hot broth to rice. Simmer, stirring often until liquid is absorbed, 12 -15 minutes.
8. Now stir in about 1/2 cup of hot broth and cook until absorbed, maybe 3 minutes. Repeat this step until rice is al dente.
9. Removed from heat, stir in remainder of butter (1 Tablespoon), Parmesan cheese, and lemon juice. Gently stir in asparagus and peas. You may add a bit more hot broth if you like a looser texture.
10. Serve immediately, topped with gremolata. If you wish, pass flaked parmesan cheese. For this, I like to make big flakes by scraping the hard cheese with a potato peeler. The resulting shaved pieces make a nice topping with the green herbs.
I have made mushroom risotto and lemon risotto. The later I made with barley instead of rice, a nice variation. My favorite risotto is not one I made myself, but a dish of lobster risotto at Saltwater Grill in Galveston across from The Grand 1894 Opera House on Post Office Street. Oh my! Reservations strongly recommended if you try it.