06 April 2011

asparagus & lemon risotto

My day today included reading someone else's lesson plans, learning a hundred names then promptly forgetting them, and watching in horror as a six year old lost his tooth in the middle of my second class. Let's just say I was due for some serious decompressing when I got home.

Since we're fresh out of tropical vacations, I opted for cooking a slow, therapeutic dish for dinner instead. Risotto has become a favorite and a staple of my repertoire since a trip to Italy in 2007. It's got everything: wine, butter and cheese. Oh! and lovely shortgrain rice with a slight bite to it, and as many ingredient options as you can imagine (as if there needs to be more to life than wine, butter and cheese).

Risotto is tricky, but not difficult. It's more of a relationship than anything: it begs attention, time, and tlc, but in return it gives aromas, sounds and tastes that are just plain good for the soul. Don't try making risotto when you also need to wash dishes, feed the cat or execute an intricate yoga workout. It just won't happen. Risotto's love language is definitely time and it won't take well to being shorted.

Since I'm a really mean wife who put my husband's least favorite vegetable in what was to be our main course, I also baked up some chicken breasts sprinkled with salt, pepper and thyme and drizzled in leftover lemon juice and olive oil. The sauvignon blanc I used for the risotto happened to have strong citrus notes which made this meal dance, just a little bit. One for the pot, one for the cook...

Asparagus & Lemon Risotto

{adapted from Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food}
about 4 servings

1 pound asparagus, ends snapped off and chopped on the diagonal into 1/4 inch bits
1 lemon, zested and juiced
3 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, diced fine
1 1/2 cups risotto rice (Arborio, Carnaroli, Baldo, or Vialone Nano)
5 cups chicken broth (or vegetable for a vegetarian dish)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Bring the broth to a boil then turn it off. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy-bottomed 2 1/2 to 3 quart saucepan and saute the onion until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the rice, and cook, stirring now and then, until it begins to become translucent, about 5 minutes. (This process is called the tostatura, which means to toast, and helps lock in flavor to each grain and allows the final risotto to retain the shape of each grain instead of becoming porridge.) Watch carefully, and do not let it brown. Stir the lemon zest into the sauteed rice, then add the wine. Continue to stir fairly often until all rice is absorbed, then add 1 cup of broth. Allow to simmer vigorously, and continue to stir occasionally. When the rice begins to get thick, add 1/2 cup broth and some salt (not too much, depends on saltiness of broth). Continue to add broth, a ladleful at a time, stirring occasionally and not allowing rice to become dry. After 12 minutes or so stir in asparagus and continue to add broth. After 15-20 minutes begin to taste the rice; once it is fairly soft with a firm core, add one more ladleful of broth (you may not use all the broth) and more salt if needed. When the broth is absorbed, stir in about half the lemon juice, and add cheese and 1 tablespoon butter, and stir vigorously for about 30 seconds. This action binds the risotto together. Turn off heat and allow rice to sit for 2 minutes, then taste. Add more lemon juice or salt if necessary, stirring to combine, and serve.

Take out the lemon & asparagus to make Risotto Bianco, a classic and versatile side dish to which you can add just about anything. Some of my favorite combinations are peas and prosciutto, roasted butternut squash and sage (all of which can be stirred in at the end), and a tomato sausage risotto which requires a slightly different process but is so worth it.

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