I am marking the transition by driving to Arizona, where maybe the desert will be starting to bloom. The temperature will be balmy and there will be hikes, reading, swimming and a lot of nothing much for a few days.
Last weekend the market was already more colorful: if fruit is still limited, the vegetable piles are turning interesting again and I came home with a bunch of asparagus, the stalks medium-sized, the tips fat and dark green, the possibilities endless.
My first go-to for asparagus is always risotto, because I am Italian after all and because risotto is one of those dishes that cannot be easily replicated by a restaurant, unless the menu clearly states there will be a 20 minute wait if ordering it. Most restaurant kitchen can’t afford to be bogged down every time a customer orders risotto, so the rice is usually par-cooked before service, kept spread on a sheet pan and the risotto finished to order. Unfortunately, by so doing, one loses the creaminess stemming from the starch slowly being released as the rice gently cooks. To compensate this loss, most restaurants will finish the dish with cream, anathema to any Italian.
Risotto is not a complicated dish and the first one I ever learnt – I love making it for guests. I will have some simple appetizers ready and some wine and drinks available, and will gather everybody in the kitchen to munch and drink while I stand at the stove stirring. Twenty minutes go by pleasantly and the variations are plentiful: besides asparagus, all kinds of vegetables can be thrown in as well as seafood or the Milanese specialty, saffron. sofagirl posted a reliable and easy recipe you can find at the bottom of this post.
On days my mother didn’t feel like cooking, one of her favourite quick dishes was asparagus with fried eggs. Most Americans, including my family, think this is really weird but how much different is it than steamed asparagus served with a sauce made of olive oil, mustard and boiled eggs? Steam the asparagus to retain some crunch, especially at the top, and serve them alongside a couple of fried eggs per person, with the yolks still a bit soft, to better dunk the tips in. I promise you the combination of egg yolks and asparagus is heavenly.
I also love to deep fry the tips tempura style, by making a light batter of flour, sparkling water and a sprinkle of salt. Heat a few inches of neutral oil in a small pot and, when it’s very hot, dip the asparagus in the batter, shake it to get rid of the excess coating, and drop them in the oil until golden brown. Drain on a plate covered in paper towels. It’s a lovely appetizer.
Although most people eat the entire asparagus, I am not a big fan of the thickest part of the stalks which I usually chop off and refrigerate or freeze for later use in some vegetable stock. I routinely collect veggie scraps: carrot peels, celery stalks or any stalks – they all end up in a pot with some onion where I let them simmer until I have some flavorful stock. Which, especially if you are vegetarian, will be there at the ready next time you are in the mood for risotto.