Those ho-hum bundles flown in from the other hemisphere most of the year can’t fool me. I like to wait for real asparagus — and it’s finally here. The green spears are showing up at markets and in friends’ gardens (which makes me totally jealous). Their return, along with the appearance of turkeys and tulips in our yard, is a sure sign the season is changing.
Adios to beets and squash and hello to steamed spears under melting pats of cultured butter, crispy roasted asparagus bathed in bagna cauda, and speedy stir-fries with ginger, sesame, and chilis.
I’ve been looking forward to this reunion with my favorites. But since we change with the seasons, too, I like to tune into something that speaks to this moment.
What feels right to me to honor the asparagus this year is the care and comfort of a luxurious risotto —a classic. But what I have in mind a less-is-more rendition.
I remember the first time I had risotto. I was just starting out in the kitchen at the pioneering American restaurant Hubert’s on East 22nd Street in Manhattan. Nina Fraas, a more experienced cook, had just returned from Italy and had volunteered to make the staff meal.
During our busy afternoon prep for dinner service, Nina collected mushroom and vegetable trimmings to make an earthy broth. I was too busy with my own chopping to really take in where she was headed with her patient ladling and stirring and plumping of arborio rice in the rondeau (a monster of a big broad pot). When the rice was tender but firm and still saucy, she portioned it into bowls and insisted we stop what we were doing and eat.
That first luscious spoonful blew me away. Creamy, comforting, umami-rich from handfuls of Parmigiano Reggiano, it was heavenly. Sexy, even: risotto, where have you been all my life?
Risotto is best served à la minute — kitchen parlance for those things that are best made to order. That’s because you need to keep the broth hot and attend to the transformation of the rice as it cooks to catch the al dente moment when the texture is firm yet tender. Sometimes it needs more broth, sometimes less. Every pot is different, and stirring it to perfection is like catching a wave. This is a dish that’s really better suited for a home kitchen — where cook and diners can give it their full attention.
The kind of rice you use is key to the texture of the dish and is especially important to the lighter version I have in mind. Arborio, vialone nano, and carnaroli rice all are varieties with short round grains and a high starch content — the key to risotto richness with no need for added cream.
The broth should be light in body — not a reduced stock. I am not a fan of commercial broths (particularly tinny-tasting vegetable ones) that interfere with the vegetables’ delicate flavors. Asparagus and other vegetable trimmings simmered in water is the plant-forward way to go.
Pairing the asparagus with peas and young carrots answers the call for a full-on spring dish. Frozen peas picked at their peak can be better than starchy older fresh ones, but if you have delicate peas from your garden, all the better.
Shards of prosciutto slices that have been crisped in olive oil, cooled, and scattered on top of the finished dish is an addition that will please the meat eaters in your life.
Welcome back, asparagus. It’s great to see you. Looking forward to hanging out this spring.
Welcome Back Risotto
1 lb. asparagus
7 cups water
1½ tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
½ bunch flat-leaf parsley
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, minced; reserve the skins and ends
1¾ cups arborio rice
2/3 cup dry white vermouth
Finely grated zest of one lemon
½ cup peas, frozen or fresh (optional)
3 to 5 Tbsp. unsalted butter, diced
¾ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or pecorino Romano, plus more for serving
Freshly ground black pepper
- Peel the thickest part of the asparagus stems and save the peelings. Snap off the stems that are dry or woody and save those as well. Cut the spears in ¾-inch pieces. Put the water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil with a pinch of salt. Drop the asparagus in the boiling water and cook, uncovered, until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Scoop the asparagus from the water and rinse it in a colander with very cold water. Reserve the asparagus cooking water in the pot.
- Peel and slice the carrots and save the peelings. Mince the parsley leaves. Add the parsley stems, carrot and asparagus peelings, and reserved bits of shallot to the pot. Cover the pot and steep over very low heat for 30 minutes. Scoop out and discard the trimmings. (Or the broth can be done ahead.)
- Bring broth to a simmer. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallot bits are translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon until coated and glossy, about 1 minute. Add the vermouth and cook, stirring, until it’s absorbed by the rice. Ladle in a scant cup of the broth and stir until the rice again absorbs the liquid. Repeat this, adding broth, stirring occasionally, and allowing the rice to plump and absorb the broth before adding more. Make sure to get into the edges of the pot as you stir. As the rice swells, adjust the heat to maintain a simmer. Shaking the pan is a good way to even out the mixture over the heat as it cooks. Stir in the salt.
- When rice is al dente — tender with a bit of bite — and the broth is used up, raise the heat and stir in the asparagus, peas, and lemon zest. Stir until heated through. Remove from heat, stir in the butter until melted and add the cheese and parsley. Stir and season with salt to taste. Divide among warm bowls, grind a generous amount of pepper over each, and serve with more cheese.