Some people find risotto mysterious, but it's a mystery well worth solving! The white rice we serve as a vehicle for our gravies and stews, it is not. Risotto rice is a different grain, round and of medium length. My Tuscan friends recommend the Carnaroli brand, but it's easier to find Arborio here. Both have shorter, rounder grains that are able to absorb more liquid, and when cooked properly take on a creamy texture while retaining a firm 'bite' in the center.
Risotto is generally a meal unto itself. Varying herbs, vegetables, and sometimes meats can take this dish through a kaleidescope of flavors, but a few things are always constant: begin with butter and extra virgin olive oil in which the rice grains are 'toasted'; next, wine is absorbed into the rice; and then the broth addition begins with patient stirring. At the final stage parmesan cheese and a little butter are added before serving.
When I think about risotto, I'm reminded of one of my favorite meals in Tuscany. On a lovely spring day we sat on the terrace overlooking a hillside of olive trees and grapevines, their new growth adding layered shades of color to the landscape. We were served a delicate spring asparagus risotto, brightened with the addition of lemon zest, and further flavored with a crisp white wine and parmeseano regiano. This was the perfect spring meal with light, delicate flavors as refreshing as the seasonal breeze.
Tuscan food is all about simplicity and serving the fresh, locally available ingredients. I have to remind myself of this lesson from time to time: simplicity and freshness are always best. When I stray too far from that mantra, I usually have to step back and start over. That doesn't necessarily infer quick preparation. The Italian grandmother doesn't mind the work of stirring the risotto, cutting the vegetables, grating the cheese, taking the time to give each ingredient its proper respect. Patient preparation, and then spending communal time at the table is all part of the experience of the food.
I'm giving you lots of tips, and probably more information than you need, but I'm hoping you'll read through the following recipe, keeping in mind that with a salad and some crusty bread, it is a complete meal. The most labor intensive part of this entire recipe is peeling the shrimp. You can prepare the shrimp dish ahead of time and refrigerate until ready to bake, remembering to add a little baking time if it has been refrigerated. Or eliminate the shrimp addition all together and make only the asparagus risotto. Either way, you won't be disappointed.
Enjoy a glass of wine and some good music while you're cooking, and celebrate your time as well as your food when you're around the table with friends!
Making the perfect risotto does take some practice. Once you know the consistency you want to achieve, you're more than half way home. I've read there are no short cuts to a good risotto, and it's true that a certain amount of stirring and attention are required. My friends in Tuscany who grew up making risottos with their 'nonas' offered some tips. They use a wider bottomed pan, spreading the rice over a larger surface, making the perfect risotto much easier to achieve, and even a little quicker, without constant stirring. Always use a wooden spoon! When toasting the rice, it will reach an opaque stage with still a solid dot in the center. They claim you can hear a sound, called 'tostatura', to let you know when this stage is complete. Wine should be at least room temperature if not warm, and the broth simmering when adding to rice. As you add the broth, don't let the previous liquid be completely absorbed before adding more (nearly, but not completely). Finally, after adding cheese and butter, cover and let rest for a couple of minutes before serving. You can add just a little more broth at the end if needed to loosen the consistency.
Spring Risotto with Asparagus
(Serve with Shrimp with Lemon Shallot Butter*)
(Prepare shrimp first so you can use the broth when preparing the risotto.)
*Shrimp with Lemon Shallot Butter
2 lbs. Large shrimp, in the shell
1 T seafood seasoning (I use Chesapeake Bay Style Seafood Seasoning by Blue Crab Bay Co.)
1 tsp. Salt
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
2 tsp. Dried Tarragon
2 shallots, finely minced
One-half tsp. Salt
One-eighth tsp. Dried red chilli flakes
1 stick butter, melted
One-half cup panko bread crumbs, plus two T finely chopped pecans
Fill a large nonstick skillet (I use a 12 inch diameter pan with 3 inch sides for cooking shrimp and risotto) with water. Add seafood seasoning and salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. When boiling, add half shrimp, cover, and boil for one and a half minutes. Remove shrimp with slotted spoon to bowl of ice. Add remaining shrimp to pan and repeat. Strain cooking liquid into sauce pan and set aside (SAVE BROTH). Remove shrimp from ice bath and peel, throwing shells away.
Mix zest and lemon juice, tarragon, shallots, salt, dried chilli flakes and butter. Place half the shrimp into medium sized buttered casserole. Generously brush shrimp with the lemon/butter mixture. Top with half the panko. Repeat shrimp layer and brush with butter mixture. Mix remaining panko with remaining butter mixture and spread evenly over shrimp.
Bake at 325º for 25 minutes. (Bake while making risotto.)
Spring Risotto with Asparagus
2 bunches small new asparagus
1 medium sweet onion, diced
2 cups Arborio (risotto) rice
3 T butter, plus 1 more tablespoon
3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 cup crisp white wine (I use Pino Grigio), room temperature
Zest of one lemon
~ 6 cups broth (I use shrimp broth mixed with vegetable broth, but you can use prepared chicken or vegetable broth)
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 stalks celery, with tops, roughly chopped
1 onion, quartered
3 large Parsley sprigs
1 tsp. salt
Break asparagus and set aside tender stalks with tips.
Add 6 cups water to medium sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add celery, onion, parsley, salt and the tough asparagus ends to water. Simmer for 30 minutes (or more). Remove vegetables from broth with slotted spoon, and discard, SAVING BROTH.
Cut tips from tender ends of asparagus, and add tips to broth over medium heat. Simmer for 3-4 minutes, just until tender. Remove asparagus tips with slotted spoon to ice bath, cool, remove from ice bath and set aside.
Add reserved shrimp broth to vegetable broth and keep at a low simmer.
Finely dice remaining raw asparagus stems.
Add 3 tablespoons butter and olive oil to large, heavy skillet (~12x3) over medium heat. Add diced onion, and when becoming translucent, add finely diced stems of asparagus. Cook until tender.
Add rice and stir until rice is nicely coated and mixed with vegetables. Continue to stir for a minute or two, and then add wine. Stir until wine is nearly all absorbed by rice. Add lemon zest, and about one cup of simmering broth. Stir occasionally until broth is nearly absorbed, and add another cup of broth. Repeat the process until rice is of proper consistency, and most of broth has been added. Rice should be tender on the outside with just a tiny 'bite' left on the inside. This takes about 16-18 minutes.
Remove from heat and add one tablespoon butter, and parmesan cheese, and stir vigorously to combine. Add a little more warm broth if needed. Risotto should have a creamy, almost soupy consistency while retaining that tiny little 'bite' in the center of the grains. Cover and let rest for a couple of minutes. Add asparagus tips just before serving with baked shrimp.
(Note: seafood risottos generally omit cheese, but the parmesan cheese in this recipe combines beautifully with the baked shrimp.)