As many of you know, I’m actively trying to reduce the amount of meat my family eats, both for environmental and health reasons. One of the times I find it very easy is during asparagus season. I adore asparagus and will eat it served just about any way you can think of. This Asparagus Risotto Almondine is one of my favourites.
I also like to dip gently steamed asparagus spears in soft boiled eggs, bathe it in melted butter and use it in vegetable lasagna and pastas. My love affair with this gorgeous vegetable goes back to my childhood. My late Mom cultivated several asparagus crowns in our garden, and spoke fondly of her own childhood suppers of a plate of asparagus fresh from my Grandmother’s much larger garden crowned with gently poached eggs. There is nothing like freshly picked asparagus. It’s also a nutritional powerhouse – a good source of B vitamins and calcium, asparagus also contains folate, potassium, calcium and zinc.
Because of the fond memories attached to it I consider asparagus comfort food, so it seems only natural to me to pair it with one of the most soothing foods on the planet, risotto. Whether you are cooking it or eating it, risotto is comfort food almost personified. The repetitive stirring required to cook risotto properly soothes the soul and the texture and flavour bring to mind both real and imagined nursery suppers. Despite a reputation for being time consuming, risotto only takes about a half hour to prepare. In fact, risotto is one of my go to last minute suppers.
Be sure to use a variety of rice specifically for making risotto. Arborio and Carnaroli varieties work well, or choose my favourite, Vialone Nano. It produces a really creamy risotto because it can absorb twice its own weight in liquid.
Asparagus Risotto Almondine
Cooking time – about 30 minutes
2 tablespoons butter
1 red or mild white onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 scant cup of risotto rice
about 4 to 4½ cups vegetable stock (you may need a bit more or less)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
grated rind of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ cup grated vegetarian cheese
(I like Bookhams Vegetarian Pasta Cheese. Vegetarian cheddar also works well.)
¼ cup toasted flaked almonds plus more for garnish
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 tablespoons of light or heavy (single or double) cream
a good handful of asparagus (allow about 8 to 10 spears each)
I can buy flaked almonds already toasted but if you are not able to do that, preheat the oven to 350ºF (170ºC) and lay the almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the oven for about five minutes, checking every couple of minutes or so to prevent over browning. Shake the baking sheet around a bit when you check on the nuts to encourage even toasting. When the flaked almonds are lightly toasted, remove them from the oven and set aside.
Snap any woody ends off the asparagus and discard. Trim the asparagus so that the tender tops of the spears plus about three to four inches can be set aside to steam. Chop any remaining asparagus ends in half inch pieces.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Gently heat the stock in a medium saucepan over low to medium heat. You want it warm, but not boiling hot.
Add the onion to the large saucepan and stir to coat in the butter. Sauté gently until the onion begins to soften. Grate the garlic into the saucepan and cook for about a minute. Pour in the rice and stir to coat it in the buttery garlicky onions. Cook gently, stirring constantly for about 2 minutes, just to toast the rice. Don’t let it brown.
Begin adding the stock, a ladle at a time, stirring after each addition until it is absorbed. When you have added about half of the stock, add the chopped up bottom ends of the asparagus. (You will be steaming the tender tips separately.) Add the cheese and lemon rind and stir through.
Continue to add the stock, stirring after each addition until absorbed, until you have added about three quarters of it. Taste the rice. It should be al dente, or ‘to the tooth’, in other words soft, but still slightly firm. If it still seems to hard, you will need to keep adding a bit more stock. Keep tasting as you go.
When the consistency of the risotto seems right, add the lemon juice and stir in the ¼ cup flaked almonds. Lower the heat, but keep stirring the risotto from time to time so it doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan.
In a separate pan, lightly steam the asparagus over boiling water for about 3 minutes or until tender (this will vary depending on the size of the spears).
Add the cream to the risotto and stir to mix through. Serve the risotto in bowls or on plates, with half the asparagus on top of each serving. Garnish with more flaked almonds and enjoy.