Ten years ago, right about this time of year, I had one of the best days of my life. I was living in Italy at the time and my husband and I set out in the car one day with our good friend Alessandro. We didn't know where we were going exactly, just that it was "beautiful" and "worth a little drive."
After winding through the countryside for an hour or so, we stopped at the top of a hill. Our friend was a native of the region and unlike his 20-something contemporaries- who bemoaned the quiet of a small village and longed for the lights of the big city- he loved everything about his home town. He loved the land around it, the history behind it and the food that came from its soil. On that spring day so many years ago, he shared that love and taught us how to find...
... precious, tender, beautiful shoots of wild asparagus.
Carefully, and with a trained eye, he spotted and pointed out the places we should begin our search. The shoots were hidden beneath prickly bright green masses of tangled vegetation. We spent the afternoon foraging through the hills and digging in the dirt until the sun drifted close to the horizon. My husband and I each had a small bag full of asparagus that we were extremely proud of... until Alessandro appeared from around the corner with a bushel full. He smiled and said "that's a good try for a first time," and then we made our way home.
Back at his house, he transformed that amazing afternoon into something almost otherworldly in its perfection: Wild Asparagus Risotto. With the carefully collected stalks in hand he made a meal that was so wonderful, I can still close my eyes and almost taste it today.
So, every spring when the flowers begin to bloom again...
... and the asparagus begins to resemble those tiny tender stalks plucked from the Tuscan countryside, I think of my good friend.
Cin Cin Alessandro, this risotto is for you!
Spring Asparagus Risotto:
This is Alessandro's recipe with a few tweaks and changes that we've made over the last decade, but all pale in comparison to the indescribable flavor of those wild shoots. I think I'll have to visit some time soon to do it all over again.
1-2 bunches of slender asparagus stalks
4-6 smallish tomatoes diced (vine/roma/cherry- use 10 or so if going with cherry)
garlic (if you're a garlic lover you can use up to an entire head)
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley chopped
red pepper flakes (a pinch or more depending on the level of spice you like)
arborio rice (about two cups)
vegetable broth or bullion (1 quart)
truffle oil (optional)
Cut the fibrous ends off of the asparagus and put them in a medium stock pot. Add the vegetable broth and two additional cups of water. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a low simmer.
While the broth is heating up chop the rest of the asparagus into 1/4" pieces leaving the tips whole. Set the tips aside.
In a large pan, add olive oil until it just covers the base of the pan and then add the chopped asparagus before the oil begins to heat up. Keep the flame low and allow the asparagus to slowly cook (and transfer its flavor to the oil) while you chop the garlic. Add the garlic and let simmer.
While the garlic is cooking dice the tomatoes and add to the pan along with the red pepper flakes and parsley. Cook for a few minutes and then add about 2 cups of arborio rice.
Toast the rice in the pan with the vegetables for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Then, add two ladles full of broth to the pan. Allow theses to absorb before adding more.
Continue this process until the rice is tender but still has a little bite. When the risotto is getting close to being done, simmer the asparagus tips in a little water until they turn bright green and become tender.
Season the risotto with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with steamed asparagus on top and a generous amount of parmesan (you can also stir in parmesan before serving and then add a bit more for garnish). Drizzle with truffle oil (optional, but highly recommended).
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