It has been a long wait; a long, cold and damp wait for spring. Bright colours now bring the countryside to life: puffballs of blossom dapple the trees in pinks and whites; flurries of petals and wispy spores dance in the wind like a Diaghilev chorus; bluebells bring a cornflower haze to nearby woods and forget-me-nots sprinkle lawns and grass banks. You can smell the freshness, the change (well, in my case, with a large dose of anti-histamine).
I am trying hard to get inspired, to cook something that matches the change of season. A hot sun tells us that winter has been banished; hearty, slow cooked stews and heavy red wines are too rich to contemplate; lighter, greener, refreshing meals come to mind and yet… ah! Vivaldi’s “Spring” plays on the radio, a perfect accompaniment to this weather, sharper notes contrasting with the melody remind us of the cold breezes that remain. Musically, I think he is saying don’t forget your jumper.
The answer to my quandry reveals itself during the May rush at the local farm shop, customers hare boxing for the new season’s asparagus (rather like the clamour for the iPad, such is country life).
Asparagus spears bring with them a craving for fresh flavoured dishes; a sharp green freshness. However, the chilling breezes and the cool night air are a sure sign that something comforting needs to be consumed. I have gone for risotto. Hearty but fresh tasting, warming but with a zing. I can’t decide on the best method, so I have gone for three choices: classic asparagus risotto, risotto with asparagus and crisped Parma ham, and finally, my own nod to Primavera.
Asparagus Risotto Three Ways
Arborio rice 225g
Chicken stock (I have made my own) 850ml 1 ½ pints
1 Escallion shallot
1 Garlic clove
Vermouth (dry such as Noilly Prat or a dry white wine)
A handful of grated Parmesan
Additional ingredients for plate two:
1 pack of Parma ham (about 70g)
Additional ingredients for plate three:
1tbsp frozen peas (a similar amount in butter)
2 or 3 mint leaves
A few basil leaves
¼ tsp chilli flakes
Zest of ¼ lemon and a small squeeze of lemon juice (or a small dribble of dry white wine).
1. Heat the stock in a pan. Cook the asparagus for a couple of minutes in boiling water. Separate the tips of the asparagus from the stalks, keeping the heads to one side. Mince or finely chop the asparagus stems. Chop the shallot and garlic clove and mix with the asparagus stems. Grate the Parmesan. Roll the Parma ham into a cigar and slice into thin julienne strips to fry. In a blender mix the peas, mint, basil, chilli, lemon zest and butter into a paste and leave to one side. (Not forgetting the glass of wine at hand to keep you going, everything should be ready).
2. Melt some butter in a pan with a splash of oil and add the shallot, garlic and asparagus stems. Fry the mixture until translucent. Add the Arborio rice and coat thoroughly before adding the first ladle of stock. Keep going until the rice is cooked and almost all the stock has been absorbed, in other words it is not completely dry.
Once the rice has absorbed the stock but still has a ‘bite’ to it add a knob of butter and most of the parmesan and stir. Finally add a glug of Vermouth or wine. Some people believe in adding the wine or vermouth before the stock however, I stick with the majority and add it at the end. Stir in or arrange the asparagus tips on top and serve with the remaining parmesan.
As the rice is absorbing the stock, in a separate frying pan, dry fry the Parma ham until it is crispy. Again, stir in the butter and most of the parmesan, a glug of Vermouth or wine and half of the ham. Again, serve by stirring in or arranging the tips of the asparagus and the ham in a decorative manner, topping with the remainder of the parmesan.
Not wanting to over gild a gilded lily, I have chosen small enough amounts to give enough balance in this version without drowning out the asparagus flavour altogether. So, just before serving add the pea butter mix and stir. Squeeze a hint of the lemon juice and arrange the tips accordingly. Add a small scattering of Parmesan.
Flavour wise the first risotto was good but to be honest, I put a little too much cheese in which did slightly subdue the flavour of the asparagus, thankfully, though, the heads ensured that some flavour remained. The overall result was a rich mix of stock, creaminess from the rice and cheese, cut through with the green freshness of the asparagus and a slight kick of the herbal wine, with enough bite to the rice and to the asparagus heads to give it some good textural contrasts.
The second was more my kind of dish; rich stock and creamy, nutty rice, vegetable freshness contrasting with slightly crispy, smoky, saline and sweet meat; hints of parmesan giving more cream to this plate and a sharp, headier, herbaceous wine rush adding to the stock flavour but reducing the chance of a cloying mouthful.
Finally, my version; the ‘experiment’ (should I have named it?) Given that a true Primavera would have broad beans as well as asparagus and peas this had a real mix of contrasts that balanced well.
There was just enough of the pea, basil and mint freshness to still get the softer more muted asparagus flavour, the taste was definitely cleaner and lifted it from the creamy stock, the lemon zest and small squeeze of juice also breaking down the richness. Gentle, warming chilli lingered in the mouth to give it a longer finish. Rich, yes, but also moreish because of the ‘cooling’ herb and sharper lemony flavours.
I washed this down happily with Panizzi 2009 Vernaccia di San Gimignano. I am a huge fan of this man and his wines which are probably the best in San Gimignano. Subtle vegetal and pithier citrus flavours merge to complement the asparagus.
The ‘insulating’ warmth of the risotto, helped in part by the gentle heat of the chilli, is as comforting as any blanket for the cool night air, and my smile has spread almost as much as my waistline. Asparagus may be the food that signals spring has arrived, I think to myself in my armchair as I try hard to stay awake after my feast, but for now, I am ready to hibernate.
To read more of Louis Anthony’s work visit his food blog: http://corkscrewandcutlery.blogspot.com
To follow Louis Anthony on Twitter: @LAWUncorked.