Splendid spears

Lately I’ve been eating asparagus.

So much asparagus in fact, that my fruttivendolo shook his head as I, excuse me, we approached his stall the other (late) morning. ‘Sono finiti’ he said, nodding at the vegetable void between the melanzane and zucchine. ‘E le ciliegie (cherries)?’ I asked. ‘Sono finite anch’e le ciliegie’ he replied, nodding at the space between the last of the apricots and two punnets of strawberries sitting forlornly like the last two children to be picked for the rounders team. Then he tapped his watch and clicked his tongue ‘Ma a quest’ora cara, che t’aspetti’  (‘But at this hour dear, what did you expect!’)  What did I expect indeed, that this hour! The hour at which any self-respecting signora already has her napkin tucked around her knees, her knees tucked under the table and her first olive oil and lemon doused spear at her parted lips.

I’ve heard real asparagus aficionados possess a special tall, narrow pan with an ingenious basket system in which to boil/steam their splendid spears. I don’t. I have however devised my own cunning system for cooking asparagus. My slightly precarious and mildly dangerous method involves securing my bundle with string, chopping off all the woody ends at once so the base of the bundle is flat and then balancing said bundle, spears skyward, in the middle of a pan of enough vigorously boiling water to come three-quarters of the way up the asparagus. I then wedge a wooden spoon through the spears and under one handle, before covering the pan with a clean tea towel. This way the stems of the asparagus cook until tender in the boiling water while the delicate tips, the points d’amour, cook in the steam under their tea towel turban. Are you still with me? No! It’s probably better that way.

Having risked all sorts of kitchen mishaps I eat my boiled/steamed spears dipped in butter most of the time. Preferably unsalted butter made with cream from Volpetti. I leave a slice of the sweet, white butter in the warm kitchen so it’s extremely soft but not melted, and then I swipe my spears across the slab and crumble some salt over the top. A large napkin strategically tucked is advisable when eating asparagus dripping with butter, as is good bread and a glass of cold, crisp white wine. I’m also partial to plunging asparagus, spear fist, soldier style, into a soft-boiled egg or better still a pool of hollandaise. Since living in Italy I have also taken to eating my asparagus warm, doused with olive oil, fanned out like the spokes of a wheel on a plate and topped with very thin slices of parmesan.

So happy and busy am I with butter, boiled eggs, hollandaise, mayonnaise, olive oil and parmesan, and keeping in mind the fleeting nature of its season, I rarely want to do anything more with my asparagus. Except maybe, sometime in early June, having sated my asparagus fever, I’ll make a risotto.

I take Marcella Hazan’s advice when making Asparagus risotto, in that I partially cook the asparagus in salted boiling water first – about 3 to eight minutes depending on their size. Then I use this green tinted, asparagus infused cooking water as the broth. Marcella also suggests cutting the delicate tips from the asparagus, setting them aside and adding them at the very end. I think this is a very good suggestion. If you can control yourself when faced with a small bowl of delicious morsels that is?

Now you are going to need a glass of white wine for the risotto, so may I suggest you open the bottle now, pour yourself a glass and turn on the radio. Ready? Good! Let us begin. Having partially cooked and prepared your asparagus, set your broth in pan over a low heat at the back of the stove. Then in a wide, heavy based pan (I use my faithful le creuset) melt half the butter and the olive oil over a modest flame and then sauté the finely chopped onion, stirring attentively so it doesn’t brown but instead becomes as translucent and silky as a negligé.

Now add the asparagus pieces (but not the tips) to the soft onion and stir. Next add the rice and stir again so each grain is coated with butter before adding the wine and watching it splash and sizzle and pretty much evaporate away.

Now note the time – this will take about 18 minutes. Top up your glass, turn up the radio and begin adding the asparagus broth. Start with a hefty ladleful, turn the heat up just a little, stir and let the liquid almost disappear before adding the next ladleful. Continue like this, adding a ladleful at a time, stirring and nudging the rice while the broth is absorbed. After about 15 minutes start tasting. The rice is ready when it’s plump and tender but the center of the grain still has a slight firmness to its bite.

Pull the pan from the heat and let the risotto rest for a minute. To finish, beat in the rest of the butter and the grated parmesan moving your beating hand as fast as you can. You should hear a deep, thwack, thwack as you beat. The risotto should be creamy, moist, rich and emulsified. Finally add the asparagus tips, stir again and serve.

Have I ever mentioned I like risotto? Did I mention how much I like asparagus? Did I mention that butter and parmesan are both a heavenly match for the curious, sulfurous, vegetal nature of asparagus and so it’s hardly surprising how very very nice asparagus risotto can be.

A note about buying asparagus, it should be vital and fresh. Look for stalks that are firm, shiny and unblemished with tightly closed tips. Carnaroli rice works particularly well for asparagus risotto.

Risotto con gli asparagi    Asparagus Risotto

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s recipe

serves 4

  • 500 g / 1 lb fresh asparagus
  • 1. 5 litres water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 60 g /  2 ½ oz butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • a small mild onion
  • 450g Italian risotto rice
  • 125 ml dry white wine
  • 60 g / 2 ½ oz freshly grated parmesan
  • black pepper

Prepare the asparagus:

  • Holding your bunch of asparagus upside down, gently swish it in cold water. Then to snap off the tough woody bottoms, bend the stalk at the natural breaking point (where the color changes from white to green) 1 to 2 inches from the base.
  • In a large pan bring the water to the boil, add 1 teaspoon of salt and the asparagus. Once the water comes back to the boil, cover the pan. Allow the asparagus to cook for 4 minutes or until the asparagus are tender but still firm. Using a slotted spoon remove the asparagus from the water and set aside. Save the asparagus water.
  • When the asparagus is cool enough to handle. cut off the tips from the spears about 3 cm from the top and set aside. Cut the rest of the spears into 1 cm pieces, discarding any portion that is particularly tough or stringy.
And now for the risotto:
  • Add enough plain water to the asparagus water you have saved to make up 1.5  litres of liquid. Put this liquid in a pan over a low flame.
  • Melt half the butter with the oil in a large heavy based saute pan. Saute the onion gently over a medium flame until transparent and lightly gold in colour.
  • Add the cup-up asparagus spears but not the tips. Cook for a minute. stirring to coat the asparagus well.
  • Add the rice and stir it thoroughly but gently to absorb the butter and oil. Pour in the wine and boil for 1 minute to allow the alcohol to evaporate, stirring constantly.
  • Turn down the heat to medium heat and begin to add the asparagus water a ladleful at a time allowing the liquid to be absorbed into the rice before adding more. continue adding  a ladleful at a time until it has all been used up and absorbed by the rice. This takes about 18 minutes. Turn off the heat. Allow risotto to rest for 1 minute.
  • Add the remainder of the butter, grated parmesan, a grind of black pepper and beat firmly. Add the asparagus tips and stir again.
  • Serve


Filed under asparagus, food, pasta and rice, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, vegetables

48 responses to “Splendid spears

  1. Mondomulia

    What a wonderful post!! Thanks for sharing all these beautiful ways of cooking asparagus!
    Ps: my mum is one of those owing a special pot to be used only for cooking them! I don’t enough space in my kitchen! 😉

  2. Italian asparagus and butter from Volpetti? I can only imagine that risotto is out of control.

    • rachel

      Butter from Volpetti does make a pretty nice finish to risotto yes! It sounds like you know volpetti?. Off to plaster said butter on toast for breakfast.

  3. laura

    I’m drooling … over the writing, the photos and the recipe. I made asparagus risotto the other day. I made it following the sacred risotto steps but I sauteed the stalks with the onion (or maybe I used shallots?) and then blended the stalks for a creamy sauce to add to the risotto at the end. I blanched the tips and a few stalks I’d kept out, added the sliced stalks about 7 minutes from the end and then the tips about two minutes from the end. Otherwise, my recipe was similar to yours. Thank you, Rachel.

  4. I love that pic of Luca! We planted some asparagus in our garden last year and it has been torture to watch it grow and have to leave it this year. Next year though….. can’t wait!!!

    • rachel

      I once heard about a man who was so obsessed with cooking the freshest asparagus, he set up a primus stove in his garden so he could pick them, cook them and eat them right there. Next year that could be you (all). Hope you are all well? xx

  5. My mum just popped in brandishing some asparagus .. your post very timely! Guess who is going to make asparagus risotto tonight!

  6. You eat your asparagus just like I (usually) do! (except for an experiment this week that turned out lovely: boiled potato-avocado-green asparagus salad). May I suggest/further specify the wine to drink with asparagus? Look for northern Italian whites, esp. Pinot Biancos from Alto Adige or PB, SB, Friulano from Friuli!

    • rachel

      Hande, not only do you enchant my little boy and allow him to smear cracker on your lovely dress, You are my personal sommelier. I am going to add your advice to the post. I like the sound of that salad.

  7. I smiled the whole way through this, loving (recognising) your fervour. I was with you with the sky tilt and towel turban: the whole tending of the spears makes it more pleasurable somehow than simply slipping them into a perfectly fitting pan. I’m going to try the carnaroli rice for the risotto. Now I’m hungry…

    • rachel

      Fervour is the right word. Glad someone understands the turban concept – I did burn myself the other day though. Happy asparagus season to you Kate.

  8. I loved your last post and instantly made the pollo alla romano. I will also have to make this.

  9. I have to say…that is GENIUS. And so good to hear from you!!!

  10. I hate when people say that wine and asparagus {or artichokes for that matter} don’t mix. Personally, I think wine matches with anything – especially while cooking said ‘thing.’ Glad to see you agree! Asparagus, in season, when firm and green and not-too-thick are hard to beat. I like to douse mine in Parmesan and a runny egg yolk. But this risotto, like everything that comes from your kitchen, looks like a serious contender.

    • rachel

      Hi Carrie – I agree, and whats more my friend Hande (a sommelier) has just given us some wine tips. Parmesan and Runny egg – excellent idea x

  11. Amy

    Hi Rachel, I’ve been following your blog for a couple weeks now but I figured it’s as good a moment as ever to introduce myself and say that I’ve really been loving looking through your past posts. I love the way you write about food (and everything that ends up getting related to food). You make me want to make whatever it is you’re talking about! Anyway, looking forward to reading more future posts.

    • rachel

      Hi Amy – having been across to see your terrific blog, it seems we have much in common! So nice to meet you.

  12. I was so disappointed when Britney didn’t call with of her babies Asparagus!

  13. When time stops: waiting impatiently for risotto to rest.

    I *really* like that you include all the senses in your instructions. The thwack thwack is clearly very important!

    (One of my colleagues went to Rome on her day off this week – just a day! I insisted that she buy some fresh ricotta from the market and eat it for me. She took a photo for me, I was both pleased and extremely jealous.)

  14. Judy Hook

    Hi from Hampshire! Love your blog and as my husband is Roman, he demands Roman food so anything helps. Will be using quite a few of your recipes in the future. I spent 3 years in Rome and 1 in Milan but happy back here and just to eat Italian!

    • rachel

      I wonder how your Roman in hampshire copes without his pecorino, guanciale and ricotta? I imagine suitcases are full! Glad to meet you.

  15. My friend Nicole (from Eat This Poem) recommended this post to me after hearing about the carrot risotto I made last week, and I am so glad she did–your site is lovely! You’ve got me craving asparagus and asparagus risotto right now, and I didn’t even know that sounded good until I read this post.

  16. In my humble opinion, one never could go wrong following the advice of Marcella. You have my mouth watering for risotto. Perfect.

    • rachel

      True, so true. I am rather devoted to her book and about to eat supper – her chicken with two lemons no less.

  17. a treat to read, and such gorgeous light in the last photograph–I could sit right down to that bowl of risotto. Carnaroli, yes. Onions translucent as negligees ,indeed. Spear tips at the last, perfect.

    • rachel

      The light is pretty lovely at about 2 in this flat at this time of year, but my oh my is it hot (I wonder how you are doing?). Too hot for me. Neglige – you notice the detail x

  18. Caroline

    I just made this and it was really really good! Definitely the best risotto I’ve ever made, and possibly the best I’ve ever had. Thanks for a great recipe– I’ll be making it again for sure.

    Asparagus risotto

    • Cle

      I understood that you didn’t apppreciate such reward. So… I amended my list, and indicated another one!
      I hope she will be more glad about that!

      • rachel

        Hello Crocedelizia,

        Gosh, sorry to have offended you. I am terribly slow at responding at my comments these days. I very much appreciated your award but totally understand you are giving it to someone else.

        All the very best Rach

      • Cle

        Hi Rachel!
        How we say in Italy: “better later than Never!!!”
        I’m very glad of your reply, really! And… you know what: I will amend the post and add (again) your name! No one oblige me to nomine only 5 blogs!
        BTW I saw that you posted something elese after my comment and I realized (but I was wrong) that you didn’t appreciate my reward!
        But… Here you are and please: take your prize again!!!
        Read you soon!

  19. Leslie

    I must tell you….
    I love your blog. Its a near daily ritual. I always hope there might be a new post, but inevitably end up reading older posts. Funny, isn’t it, how the old can become new again through a change in context? I do hope you continue. And btw, I personally love hearing stories about your new little man – with pictures!
    Big love xo

    • rachel

      Hi Leslie
      Sorry I am so tardy in replying, I have been on holiday – a belated thank you for such a nice comment .

  20. pulling up a chair…

  21. Dennis

    I love your/Marcella’s recipe along with a slight variation: sauteeing a bit of chopped prosciutto before adding the asparagus. We’re just back from five days in Venice (talk about hot and humid!) and nine in Cremona. Had some wonderful food and wine at Cavatapi in Venice and at La Lucioloa and Osteria Garibaldi in Cremona (the former is just outside town on the Po).

    • rachel

      Hi Dennis,
      I will be trying your proscuitto tip and also (when I finally visit in October) taking your Venice tips. Hot and humid here in Rome too. hope you are having a good summer.

  22. Pingback: Recipes to Try | Live and Learn

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