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
- 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.