Welcome to our first column – Big Flavors, Small Price.
It’s a rough time this year. For most of us, anyway.
We’ve all sacrificed. Some of us have seen their living standards drop through the floor. I’m one of the ones that saw their living standards plummet. I mean… fall from a hillside view to the sidewalk at best, edging toward the gutter. And. If I have to be honest about it… I didn’t really mind at all, even liked it at first and for a while. You get rid of all those non-essentials, all the excess, breath in the trees and places nearby even deeper than you might have before, work on things set aside in all the hubbub and roar and howl of social living. Little things become treats, a new pair of pants becomes a big deal. And new shoes, now there’s a pleasure….
Which is actually what a lot of our parents or grandparents generation did, depending, those women and men born during the great depression or such in foreign or domestic lands. How many were and are still living, now – though not so many in developed countries but around the world, in such a way? Well, over the last couple of decades and even more the last couple of covid-stained years, more than a few. Before then things were effectively getting a little better. Banks, finance, need to be reigned in back to where they were before Clinton and company opened Pandora’s derivatives box. But Companies and their company since prefer… living well, let’s say. Too much is never enough….
…for them. We’ve mostly had to renounce one thing after another, and another, and another, outside the kitchen and in, expensive-ish wine, fresh caught free swimming ‘noble’ fish, certain kinds of beef, caviar (ok, when I say plummet I mean, yeah, I would share some good Osetra a couple times a year, at least) Michelin restaurants (and I would go to those, to, even those with a third star. Sometimes they’re worth it but often not,) keeping the cupboards and fridge and bar full to the brim. Not that you, well, I, never kept track of the price of the foods I bought but if you’re a flavor person… it’s the last thing you renounce. Maybe you’ll indefinitely postpone a visit to the dentist, a new night shirt, ride the balding bike tire another 200k but flavor, good food, well, that’s the base of everything. Fundamental.
So you shift more to open air markets to find both quality and quantity at cheaper prices and once there, shift to the stands inside that pay less rent and pass those savings onto customers as opposed to the flashier ones along the main isles. And you go less often to the butcher – sigh. What marvelous steaks from their own cattle – and look carefully at the best animal proteins you can find on sale, more pork and chicken and eggs-a-go-go, a ton more grain – bread and pasta and rice. As months go by you sort of notice… that you’ve learned how to get great flavor from throwaway food. Necessity. Often does lead to invention and knowledge of a practical kind. Anyway.
Luckily Italic cuisine is already a ‘poor’, real cuisine to begin with, mostly. It’s based on quality, local ingredients, seasonal, low on animal proteins and filled with fresh produce and grain. True, over the past few decades those traditions have been under econo-political siege. The EU imposes laws that diminish food quality and local production in favor of petty corporate and national interests. Ie, I want to know where the olives on the olive oil I’m buying have been harvested, where the cows from whom a box of milk I’m using spend their days and nights. Not Simply ‘in the EU’. Because… that sort of thing makes all the difference in the world.
Anyway. Let’s get to this first big flavor at a small price—
risotto with asparagus – 3 questions and answers: it’s simple and complicated.
- Broth or water?
Different schools of thought on whether and when to use one or the other. For what is likely the most famous risotto, so called ‘milanese’ or with saffron, I side with the renowned italian chef Marchesi, (rest in peace,) and use water instead of broth, usually. Or used to. Of late, well, good quality saffron is more expensive than gold while the poor quality stuff isn’t really worth it.
In case you aren’t used to plunking up a quick vegetable broth, simply shove in whatever is lying around after cleaning it well, cold water in a big pot, and let it rip, removing impurities along the way with a skimmer. But some carrots, celery and onion are essential. I often use a little tomato, a clove or 3, maybe a squashed juniper berry or 3 (more for meat broths though,) some ginger and sometimes sage or peapods, whatever, for a generic one. Here, slice the thick ends of the asparagus off, the more fibrous part, and shove them into the broth you’ll be using (after cleaning them, of course.) No need to peel anything by the way. Once the veggies are soft, remove, strain and crush them in a chinois or the like (the more juice comes out the more ‘cloudy’ the broth but also the more flavorful.)
- What pot/pan to use, and To stir or not to stir.
To the point: having stayed to the north of Milan, the center of risotto cuisine, I can say that the generation of women, mostly, who learned to cook before the 80’s had and still have a small but relevant local debate: pressure cooker or not. Oddly, pressure cooking risotto – which has the advantage of leaving the rice grains intact – is never or rarely mentioned beyond there. I’ve gotten so used to it that I don’t recall the last time I did a risotto in a pot or pan. If you’re trepidatious about using a pressure cooker, then use a copper one if you have one, they can be quite dear, a cast iron pot if not or if you really must, a non-stick will work out all right after all. For me, Aquarello Carnaroli rice in the cooker for 6 minutes leaves the grains at that toothy texture that genuine Lombardians still favor. I prefer in general a slightly more creamy texture so would cook longer or more slightly break the grains a little to let out extra starch or use a high quality Arborio rice, sacrificing a little flavor for a creamy, firm texture.
- To toast or not to toast.
A little secret – toasting the rice a longish time, with the high quality, relatively, of modern production and storage, probably isn’t necessary anymore. You toast it to firm it up, close it to too much liquid absorption (why other Italic rice dishes like rice and peas, ‘riso e bisi’, from the Veneto have such a different texture.) The thing is, you don’t want to fry the grains or burn them while at the same time you might want to already start their flavoring. The easiest way, of course, is to toast them dry like you do with industrial cous-cous but that’s rarely done. Olive oil works great, of course, but you have to be careful there not to fry – olive oil gets a bit hot so you’ll have work both temperature and wooden spoon with care. Butter is tradition and works but careful not to burn the butter or ‘soffritto’ – the flavoring of the oil. I often use a mix, a no-no but I simply don’t tell anyone and to now, no one has ever noticed. Or said so anyway. For this, you’ll want to chop up a scallion and let it fry on low heat for a minute before adding the asparagus in pieces except the tips (and the fibrous legs which have been used to make the broth,) Let them go together for 5 minutes more or so before upping the temp a bit and adding the rice to toast.
Putting it together – even simpler and more complicated
Risotto With Asparagus
- 360 grams Carnaroli, semi-fine nano or arborio rice
- 1.5 liters Vegetable broth
- 30-40 grams parmesan cheese
- 500 grams asparagus
- 50 grams unsalted butter
- salt to taste
- pepper to taste
- 1 scallion
- White wine 1 glass for the rice, 1 glass for you
- Put a pressure cooker on low flame, add a pat of unsalted butter and a drop or two (actually a tablespoon, roughly) of EV olive oil, then add the chopped scallion and let it go for a minute or so, mixing of course a little
- Add the slices of cleaned asparagus and let them go together until the scallion or onion is translucent and the asparagus softened, about 5 minutes.
- Raise the heat to medium-high and add the rice. Move the grains constantly now to avoid any burning or frying. The rice will absorb some of the flavored fatty liquid.
- After a couple minutes, once you see the rice just clearing their color, add the wine and let the alcohol evaporate. The only real way to get that part right is to waft the steam to your nose until you can’t smell the alcohol anymore or at least nearly at all. You can’t rush it. If the rice starts to stick beforehand, turn down the heat a little for a few seconds to finish the job. Nothing ruins risotto more often than leaving in alcohol.
- Once evaporated, add a few ladles of steaming broth (filter out, of course, the tips if you put them in. Ah, and taste, again of course, the broth for salt and adjust.) Stir lightly and make sure, if you’re using the pressure cooker, to remove any of the single grains that may be clinging to the side of the pan above the liquid line. Check nearest you in particular under the pot lip as a burned grain can leave a bit of bitterness.
- Wait for the broth to be absorbed and then add another ladle or two, then another and so on a few times making sure no rice is sticking to the bottom-sides or such. You’ll want the broth to completely cover the rice by, oh, about an inch and a half or so depending. The more liquid, the easier the ‘wave’ will remain at the end (‘all’ onda’, wave-like, the classic texture of well-done risotto. Often outside of Lombardia or Italy risotto is far too dry and sticky. You need both liquid and starch to do that thickening – ‘manticare’- to make that texture, only a little fat. NEVER CREAM.)
- Each rice will have its own particular cooking time so follow instructions and experience. As noted, Aquarello is 5 minutes on a low flame once the pot has been pressurized, then turn off a minute- the rice will still cook – then open the valve to let out the steam. Open and check the texture. Too much liquid – if it’s a little soupy – then turn on high heat for a minute to evaporate. If way too much fluid, you’ll have ladle it out. Too little, add some warm broth on heat.
- Once balanced, add the cold flakes of butter and toss or stir, turn off heat and mix in the grated cheese, then cover and let it rest a few minutes before plating. Finish the rice with a twist of black pepper and place some asparagus tips on top. Voila.
…Well, actually simple. Risotto is really a pretty easy dish that, however, does almost require a little practice. Put the already made and strained broth on a back flame to simmer – you’ll want that liquid to be boiling hot once you start to ladle it into the cooking pot so as not to interrupt the rice’s cooking. If you want the asparagus tips previously set aside to be well cooked, add them to the simmering broth now. If instead you like them more crisp, wait until the pressure cooker is closed.
A spring meal that’s cheap and delicious on a per serving basis and is even better the next day fried up, maybe with a couple eggs for a full dinner. Of course there are nearly as many variations as Covid strains: make an asparagus cream, with shrimp, with burrata cheese or Gorgonzola, with deep-fried quail eggs, etc. Try them all – life’s too short not to explore…..
One way of making the same in Italian with English subtitles: