Celebrate spring with vegetable risotto

Wolfgang Puck/Tribune Media Services Originally Published April 4, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated April 2, 2013 at 5:49 p.m.
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Tribune Media Services

Fresh asparagus and spinach give Spring Vegetable Risotto its bright color and the sweet taste of spring.

We’re only a couple of weeks into springtime, and already the world looks fresh again. The last of the snow is melting. Flowers are poking up from the ground. Trees are budding. And many farmers markets and supermarkets alike are beginning to showcase the best of the season’s new crops.

It’s enough to make you want to run into the kitchen and cook something delicious!

At this time of year, I especially love to showcase vegetables. You’ll see me simply boiling or steaming them until they’re tender-crisp and serving them just as they are, perhaps with a drizzle of fruity extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Or I’ll cut them up and rapidly saute them in just enough oil to glisten in the pan. Maybe I’ll simmer a medley of cut-up vegetables together in some broth to make the delicious soup my mother used to prepare for my sisters, brother and me from our home garden. Or I might toss the vegetables with some cooked fresh or dried pasta, adding a little olive oil or butter and some freshly grated Parmesan or crumbled fresh goat cheese.

Doesn’t that all sound good?

One of my favorite ways to showcase springtime’s new vegetables, though, is to include them in a risotto. The classic northern Italian rice dish relies on patiently stirring plump-grained varieties of rice such as Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano with ladleful after ladleful of hot broth, until the rice is tender but still chewy and surrounded by a sauce made creamy by its own dissolved surface starches.

The recipe I share here for Spring Vegetable Risotto highlights young, pencil-thin asparagus and baby spinach leaves, combined with cooked rice made vivid green by stirring in a puree of those two vegetables. Tender asparagus tips garnish each serving.

The secret to the risotto’s dazzling color relies on the classic kitchen technique known as blanching. This refers to precooking vegetables — here, the asparagus and spinach — briefly in boiling water and then draining and instantly plunging them into ice water, a step that literally sets the vegetables’ hues at their most vivid. Once blanched, a vegetable can be cooked further however you like without diminishing how beautiful it looks.

Try blanching, and you’ll be amazed by the results. Then, after you’ve prepared the recipe once as I’ve written it, start making variations with other vegetables. Blanch and add small florets of broccoli or cauliflower, or sliced carrots. Introduce other vegetables that don’t need blanching, such as strips of roasted and peeled red bell pepper, or sliced and sautéed mushrooms.

Let your imagination, and whatever looks best to you at the market, guide you in this celebration of spring!

SPRING VEGETABLE RISOTTO

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 pound pencil-thin asparagus, trimmed

4 ounces baby spinach, washed, dried, stemmed, blanched and the liquid squeezed out

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

2 1/2 to 3 cups good-quality canned chicken broth or vegetable broth

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced shallots

3/4 cup uncooked Arborio rice

1/3 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. On a counter nearby, fill a mixing bowl with ice cubes and water.

Cut off and reserve the tips of the asparagus spears in 3-inch lengths. Chop the remaining stalks. Put them in a wire-mesh strainer and lower them into the boiling water. As soon as they turn bright green, about 1 minute, remove them (leaving the water boiling) and immerse in the ice water.

Next, blanch the spinach, immersing it in the boiling water just a few seconds until wilted and bright green. Drain, still leaving the water boiling, and immerse the spinach in the ice water. Then drain well again, gather up the spinach, and squeeze tightly between your hands to extract all excess liquid.

Put the blanched and drained asparagus and spinach in a blender. Pulse the blender on and off until the vegetables are pureed. Pour the puree into a fine-meshed strainer set over a mixing bowl and press it through with a rubber spatula. Discard the fibers. Set aside the puree.

Immerse the asparagus tips in the boiling water for 1 minute; then immerse in the ice water until cooled, and drain thoroughly.

In a small skillet over medium-high heat, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter with the olive oil. Add the asparagus tips and saute until lightly golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Season lightly to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl, cover, and keep warm.

In a saucepan, bring the broth to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to very low to keep the broth hot without simmering.

In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, heat 3 more tablespoons each of the butter and olive oil. Add the garlic and shallots and saute, stirring frequently, until tender but not yet browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the rice and saute, stirring, until thoroughly coated with the butter and oil, about 1 minute.

Add the wine to the pan, and stir and scrape with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan. Simmer, stirring, until the wine has almost completely evaporated.

Using a 4-ounce ladle, add a ladleful of broth to the rice. Stir the rice continuously over medium heat until the broth has been absorbed and the rice looks almost dry.

Add another ladle of broth and repeat the stirring process until it has been absorbed. Continue the process until you have added a total of 2 1/2 cups of broth, or just until the rice is tender but still chewy.

Stir in the reserved vegetable puree.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and the Parmesan. Continue to stir in a little more hot broth just until the risotto looks moist and creamy but not runny. Adjust the seasonings to taste with salt and pepper.

Divide the risotto among 4 heated serving plates or shallow soup or pasta bowls. Garnish with the sautéed asparagus tips. Serve immediately.

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