Marcella Hazan, the grande dame of Italian cookery, writes with such authority (or crankiness, depending on your point of view) that when she instructs you to use beef stock for your delicate risotto of spring vegetables, that chicken stock reduces too sharply and simply will not do, you buy beef stock. You think twice, maybe three times about it, but you just tamp down any instincts of your own and buy the beef stock.
And you know what? She was right. It worked. I did take a few liberties with her recipe, opting to keep the asparagus as crisp as I could and throwing in some fresh peas, but the rest is as Marcella intended. Signora Hazan also notes, helpfully, that with more ethereal flavorings (seafoods or spring vegetables, say) risotto is best prepared in the Venetian style, very slack and almost soupy; bolder ingredients (mushrooms, sausage) warrant a tighter consistency. My attempt had a fine layering of flavor (rich stock, Parmigiana-Reggiano, and a gentle underpinning of green) and a creamy, firm-to-the-bite texture, but the risotto ended up a little tighter than I was going for. Try, try again.
I served this as a main dish one night, and leftovers as a smaller course with halibut the next, reheating it on the stove and adding a little stock to loosen it up again. For a beautiful vegetarian main, you could certainly replace the beef stock with mushroom or vegetable broth, though if Marcella comes knocking on your door, I had nothing to do with it.
Risotto with Asparagus & Peas
adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, 1992
- 1 lb asparagus
- 1/2 lb shelling peas in their pods
- 2 C Arborio rice
- salt and pepper
- 3 Tbsp butter
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 Tbsp onion, minced
- 1/4 C Parmigiana-Reggiano
- 1 Tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 32 oz stock
Snap off the woody ends from the asparagus and discard. Peel any very thick stalks, if needed. Shell the peas. In a pan large enough for the asparagus to lay flat, fill with water 2″ up the sides and add a tablespoon of salt. (Don’t add the asparagus yet.) Put over medium-high heat until simmering. Add asparagus and cover for 3-4 minutes. Remove the asparagus and reserve the blanching water.
When cool enough to handle, cut the asparagus tips 1 1/4″ – 1 1/2″ from the top. Cut the stalks in 1/2″ pieces. In a medium pot, measure out the blanching liquid and add enough stock to make 6 cups total. Bring to a slow, steady simmer on a back burner.
Add the butter, olive oil and onion in a broad, heavy-bottomed pot. Over medium-high, cook the onion until translucent and softened. Add the rice, coating the grains. Add 1/2 C of simmering broth, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Stir until all the liquid is absorbed, then add another ladleful of broth, maintaining the heat at a “lively pace”. Continue to scrape the bottom and sides of the pot to keep the rice from sticking. Continue adding the stock and stirring carefully (turn down the heat if you’re at risk of scorching the rice), adding the vegetables when half of the broth has been added.
After about 20 minutes, check the rice for doneness. When done, the risotto will be tender but firm to the bite; aim for a creamy, loose (but not runny) consistency overall. Add the Parmesan; taste and correct for salt. Stir in the parsley. Transfer to a platter and serve right away.