The difference between risotto and paella – and the reason some people think risotto is too much work – is the stirring. Paella is mixed together, popped in the oven, and left to do its thing. Risotto is stirred, sometimes obsessively. Stirring releases the starch in the rice, which in turn thickens the broth into a sort of gravy that holds the rice in suspension, and turns the dish into comfort food of the highest order (while somehow retaining its elegance).
Obsessiveness is the norm in recipes for risotto, “stir, stir, stir” the mantra. Yes, you need to stir your risotto very regularly, but if you step away for two minutes to zest a lemon or cut your asparagus, I promise the world won’t end. It’s a hands-on process, but not a laborious one. In fact, you might just find it relaxing!
The ingredients for this recipe are simple – rice, wine, lemon, broth, asparagus – but the end result is swoon-worthy: beautiful grains of toothsome rice held together in a sunshine-yellow, lemony suspension, accented with rounds of green asparagus. It looks and tastes like springtime in a bowl.
By the way, you don’t need to splurge on fancy Arborio or Carnaroli rice, though you should certainly feel free to. Any short-grain white rice will do: I most often use California-grown Japanese-style rice, such as Nishiki or Calrose. You can find them at well-stocked grocery stores. Whatever rice you choose, do not rinse it before you start; the starch that clings to it is essential to thickening the risotto.
The preserved lemon garnish is optional, and something I tried for the first time this year. I’ve read for years about how good preserved lemons, a staple of Moroccan food, are, and happened to find some with the bulk olives at Whole Foods. They have a bright, vibrant lemon flavor that is a lovely finishing touch for the dish, so if you happen upon some, try them here. If not, no big deal.
More ways with rice: Easy Paella with Chorizo and Chicken or Shrimp, Japanese Curry Rice, Baked Wild Mushroom and Brown Rice Risotto, Golden Basmati Rice, Brown and Wild Rice Casserole with Cottage Cheese
Springtime Lemon Risotto with Asparagus
Serves: 4 Time: 40 minutes, all hands-on
3/4 pound asparagus
2 cups (1 can) chicken broth or vegetable broth
2 cups water
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1.5 cups short-grain rice – do not rinse
1/4 teaspoon turmeric, for extra color, optional
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons minced preserved lemon, optional
Snap the tough ends off the asparagus and discard. Slice the asparagus into 1/4 or 1/2 inch pieces, keeping the pointy tips whole. Place in a bowl with a little water and a dash of salt; microwave for 2 minutes or so, until the pieces are tender but still have some bite. (You can also steam it gently on the stove.) Set aside, removing some pretty tips for garnish when the asparagus has cooled a little.
Combine the broth and water; warm in a saucepan or in a large bowl or measuring cup in the microwave. Zest the lemon (I use a Microplane), then cut in half and juice. Set zest and juice aside.
In a large skillet with high sides, warm the butter or oil over medium heat. Add the onion and saute 5 minutes or so, until translucent. Add the rice and saute another few minutes, until the rice is glossy and has turned slightly transparent. (Some of the kernels may have turned opaque white. That’s fine.) Stir in the turmeric, if using.
Here’s where we start the famous stirring part. Add the wine and stir until it’s all soaked up by the rice or evaporated. Now start adding your diluted broth, about 1/2 cup at a time, by the same procedure: Add broth and stir until it’s almost all absorbed, then add more. The rice should never fully dry out – author Patricia Wells, in her Italian cookbook Trattoria, says it should “always be covered by a veil of stock.”
Continue doing this until you’ve used almost all your broth, which will probably take 15 to 20 minutes. Taste a kernel of rice. You want it to be firm to the bite but not at all chalky in the middle, and the overall consistency should be thick and creamy, not dry or soupy. If the rice isn’t done, add a cup of water to your broth and continue until it is. When the rice is just right, stir in the lemon zest, half the juice, the Parmesan, and the asparagus. Taste; if you want more salt or lemon, add it now. Serve in warm bowls, garnished with a few asparagus tips and some minced preserved lemon, if using.