Not all risotti (plural of risotto) are created equal.
There are schools and rules of how you stir, when to put the broth in, what broth to use, what rice to use, etc.
Yet, in the end once you know the rules, it’s okay to improvise. Everyone loves the creaminess of a well-prepared risotto, with just the right amount of butter and parmigiano, slightly wet and still moving, as opposed to a blob of over-cooked rice made out to be something that it’s not. Then, there are risotti that have no dairy at all. They rely on the other subtle flavors to come through. A seafood risotto of course, has only the flavor of the sea, perhaps herbs and tomato.
There are techniques that assure a splendid risotto and once you get them down, you are home free to make whatever you like.
My heart’s desire tonight, was something simple. Sometimes, I have to eat simply, real simple that is, to give my stomach a rest from my job as a roving gastronome.
Tonight I got the inspiration for a wild asparagus risotto. I had at least a cup of arborio rice in the cupboard, a bunch of wild asparagus that I had gotten from the market, and thought, this will do. My terracotta pot for cooking beans and tagines was staring me in the face saying, pick me! Pick me! So I thought, why not try a risotto cooked in terracotta?
I cleaned and tipped the asparagus, using the stems for the broth. I added a pinch of aromatic salt from my friend Pierre and let it come to the boil, and then a simmer.
Terracotta pots have to brought to temperature slowly, so I lifted the flame slowly to sauté a finely chopped shallot in some good extra virgin olive oil to make a base. When the shallots were translucent, I added the rice and stirred it in the base to seal the grains in flavor for a few minutes before adding the broth.
The first few ladles-full of broth go in without stirring, just enough to spread the grains of rice around evenly. Don’t stir for at least four minutes. You can continue to add your broth, a few ladles-full at a time, letting the rice absorb slowly. The beauty of a terracotta pot is that you can let things cook piano, piano…(slowly, slowly). It maintains the heat and cooks things thoroughly, yet slowly. Normally, you want a high flame (so my friend Piero tells me) to cook risotto, but my experiment in terracotta told me it’s okay, once the pot is up to temperature, to continue cooking on a low to medium flame.
This process can go on for a half hour or so, keeping your eye on the cooking of the rice, striving to keep it al dente. When the rice was 95 percent there, I tossed in the asparagus tips. The last of the broth was absorbed, yet still wet, making for a creamy risotto (sans cream), just from the starch of the rice. The asparagus were perfectly cooked and still green.
I didn’t add butter, nor parmigiano. Perche? The natural flavor of the asparagus stems, along with a pinch of salt and Pierre’s herbs was all I needed. I could really taste the flavor of the wild asparagus, subtle but anise-like. This would have been masked by the butter and the cheese..and a glass of wine. But since I renounced all three of those things, I got the real Euell Gibbons (Stalking the Wild Asparagus 1962). The terracotta pot cooking gave it a nice strong, stewy texture. It was creamy, (sans cream) and delicious. My tum-tum was grateful and my gastronomic soul was soothed.
1 cup aroborio rice
1 bunch of asparagus (wild if you can get it!)
1/2 of aromatic salt for the broth
extra virgin olive oil
4-6 cups of water
Clean the asparagus, tip at the tender point, separate the less tender stems and put aside.
Put the water in a pot and bring to a boil and then a simmer.
Drop the asparagus stems inside, along with the aromatic salt, or sea salt and fresh thyme, if you have it.
While the broth is simmering, sauté the shallot in a strong drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. When translucent, incorporate the dry rice into it.
Ladle in a few spoons of broth, stir once and let it alone for at least four minutes. This way you don’t break down the starch of the grain. Keep adding broth, little by little, as the rice absorbs the liquid.
At a certain point, you will notice that the rice is looking puffed and creamy but still al dente, drop in the asparagus tips and continue to cook until they are tender, but still vibrant in color, adding a bit more broth
to keep the creamy consistency of the rice. Check for salt and pepper if you like.
At this point, you have a dairy free risotto. It should be quite flavorful. Please add a tad of butter and grated parmigiano if you like.
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Ed: B. Bemel
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