3 people to thank for today’s recipe; Barbara Vance for her observations on cooking for one, and Rick and Su (once again!) for the delicious, ridiculously tall asparagus from their garden.
I love cooking alone. Even when I’m cooking for 8 or 10 (which is not an uncommon thing for me to do in normal times) I love to do as much of the prep as I can before they arrive. Sometimes I play music, but it has to be instrumental, words distract me. Preparing and cooking food for me is like a meditation. I like to be really focused on my senses. The stronger the smell of something, the tastier it’s likely to be. I like to mix up, contrast and complement the colours. Most of all, though, I love to feel the range of textures as my knife cuts through… every carrot, every potato has a different density and that affects how I chop it. Harder, more solid vegetables take longer to cook so need to be in smaller pieces than the slightly softer ones. Even vegetables from the same plot and batch can vary.
The asparagus from Rick and Su’s garden was a fine example of this. It wasn’t just about the thickness of the stems – in fact some of the skinny ones were quite tough and the thick ones surprisingly soft. I decided to make this an exclusively asparagus risotto (normally I would fry up some celery with the onion and garlic, and use vegetable stock to cook the rice) so chopped the stems into 3 batches. After removing and discarding the earthy, really tough base (only a couple of cm) I chopped the woody bottom part into very small slices, the middle into approx 2cm chunks and left the tips quite long. Each stem was different, some with more of the tough stalk and some with a higher proportion of tender tip. This is where the joy comes in for me. Focusing on nothing but the texture of asparagus stems for several minutes.
Yes, I know, I’m weird. But harmless.
Here are the 3 batches:
Add the thinly chopped, tougher pieces in step 1, the medium bits in step 2 and the tips in step 3.
1 medium onion
About 9 or 10 asparagus spears (more if you’re using shorter shop-bought asparagus)
2 garlic cloves
500 ml hot water (or vegetable stock if you want more than the taste of asparagus)
200 g (1 cup) risotto rice
a glass of white wine
50 g grana padano or parmesan cheese. Grana padano is less salty and a little creamier.
1 dessertspoon mascarpone cheese
salt and pepper
What to do. …roughly speaking
Chop the onion, garlic and the woody bottom part of the asparagus stems very finely.
Heat a little olive oil in a large saucepan until smoking, and add the chopped veg. Stir it all around quickly for a few seconds and then turn down the heat, put a lid on the pan and sweat the veg for about 6-8 minutes. If you taste a tiny piece of the asparagus at this point you will notice how it has softened and picked up the garlic and onion flavour, but still maintained its own character.
Take off the lid, turn up the heat a bit and add the rice. Keep stirring. Add the wine. Keep stirring. When the rice has absorbed the wine, add the second batch of asparagus (the middle of the stems) and stir it around.
Start to add the water – a little at a time. Wait until the rice has absorbed the liquid before you add any more. Taste the rice from time to time to see how you’re doing. (I’m always fascinated by the way that flavour as well as texture changes during the cooking process). When the rice is almost cooked (after about 20 minutes) you’re ready for…
Add the tender ends of the asparagus and salt and pepper. Keep cooking until the rice and tender tips are cooked (when the rice is no longer gritty in the middle, its done).This will probably be approximately 5 more minutes.
Turn off the heat and add the parmesan and mascarpone – mix it all around thoroughly.
Taste it and add a little more salt and pepper if you like.
This is enough for 2 large portions or 3 small ones, but back to Barbara’s point about cooking for one… I must confess that most of the time I just eat way too much, but the options for the rest of it are:
a) Eat 1/3, put the other 2 portions into freezer bags. Risotto freezes surprisingly well but make sure that you de-frost it really thoroughly, and then I like to re-heat it in a shallow dish covered in foil in a low oven for about 20 minutes. Of course, you can use a microwave or place it in a pan on the hob on a low heat with a little more white wine to stop it from sticking. If you re-heat it this way, make sure you keep it moving all the time.
b) Call a neighbour and ask if they’d like some.
Unfortunately, you probably can’t donate it to your local food bank as most of them only take unopened, packaged food for security reasons.