The inspiration for Risotto with Asparagus and Mushrooms comes from my friend Sandy Oliver, food writer and historian, who lives on Isleboro and writes a column for the Bangor Daily News. Like me, Sandy has enjoyed eating and cooking for years, but there were certain classic preparations missing from her repertoire, such as the Italian dish risotto.
Risotto is a rice specialty; delectably creamy, but yet with the rice grains still separate and firm, often perfectly flavored with cheese, vegetables, white wine and herbs. The texture and flavors of a well-made risotto is a match made in heaven. But, unlike potatoes, which this Maine cook serves almost daily, the risotto cooking process is labor-intensive and somewhat daunting.
True confession: Until this recipe, I had never prepared risotto.
But when I read Sandy’s recipe for Asparagus and Fiddlehead Risotto, and my husband harvested a bunch of asparagus, I had to give it a try.
A completely successful risotto only works with certain varieties of rice, Italian varieties like Arborio, Vialone Nano, and Carnaroli. Arborio is the variety most available in supermarkets, specialty food stores and at your local coop.
The risotto technique exploits the uncommon properties of this rice that has a soft, starchy outer covering. When simmered with a flavored base, this starch dissolves, creamily binding the kernels together, and at the same time, with the vegetables and other ingredients of your choice.
The foundation of risotto is usually garlic and onion or shallot, sautéed in oil or butter. Then, the raw rice kernels are stirred into the base, and lightly toasted so that each rice kernel is coated. A half-cup or so hot cooking liquid is added to the pot, and the rice is simmered and cooked, until the liquid is almost gone. More liquid is added and simmered, and the process is repeated until the rice is nearly done.
The final steps are adding the vegetables and herbs of your choice, and finishing with a dollop of butter and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
My first batch of risotto was with fresh asparagus and frozen peas. I used a combination of chicken stock and water, and lots of chopped fresh herbs. I cooked Risotto with Asparagus and Mushrooms for the vegetarian friends, using mushroom stock instead of chicken stock. Because the flavors of the cooking liquid become more pronounced and intense as the rice cooks, another time I’d use less stock and more hot water.
The quantity of liquid is only a guide; you may need more or less. Keep it hot next to the heavy cooking pot in which you cook the rice. Remember to just barely cover the rice and let it simmer; don’t drown it! As you get to the end of the cooking liquid (about 15 – 20 minutes), remove a few grains of rice and taste them. Too hard? Then cook a bit more. The rice should be soft in the center, tender, but still firm to the bite.
Thanks to Sandy, my new go-to dish for showcasing this summer’s fresh bounty is going to be risotto. Risotto with lovage, risotto with tomato and basil, risotto with clams….so many risottos…so little thyme!