I’m generally a fan of the minimalist approach to risottos: just one or two main ingredients that are allowed to shine with the rice. And, of course, the rice must be a good risotto rice that will give that essential creaminess, such as arborio or vialone nano. However, when I was in Venice recently, I had the most wonderful risotto – Torcello Risotto – at Locanda Cipriani one lunchtime and it changed my mind about the number of ingredients one can add. The Locanda’s Torcello risotto has some basic ingredients that are always included but throughout the year it changes according to the season. In April, mine arrived a glorious green containing new baby artichokes, asparagus and fresh peas.
It was a risotto with lots of ingredients and it was one of the best risottos I’ve ever had in my life. To say I was trying to recreate that tonight is in all honesty a step too far; I know my limitations. Far simpler and more honest to say it inspired me to make a risotto containing some of the spring vegetables that are in season. I bought some asparagus, courgettes and spinach (although mine came in a pack from the supermarket, I saw some lovely big clumps ripe for picking growing in Kew Gardens at the weekend). There were fresh peas to buy but I’m a bit lazy about peas and this is one of those rare occasions when I say the frozen variety will do just as well (even though I know fresh peas picked from your garden and eaten straight away are a very special thing!). There was no way I was going to find fresh baby artichokes locally (if at all in London) so I settled for adding some ready cooked ones preserved in oil that come from Carluccio’s and are excellent. I also have big pots of fresh herbs thriving in my garden so I thought I’d add some of those too – a good amount of mint (which would go so well with the other ingredients), parsley, chives, just a little peppery rocket. I also added some basil that I had growing inside on a windowsill.
I had some homemade light chicken stock in the freezer and decided to use that for flavour and depth but you could always use vegetable stock to keep the dish vegetarian. I do often cook some of the vegetables for a risotto separately before adding to the rice but this was an essential part of the cooking at Locanda Cipriani so I took special care tonight to do that. This ensures that each vegetable’s flavour is distinct; it adds depth to the flavour too but of course must all come together harmoniously at the end. I chose to add: 1 shallot, ½ stick celery, 1 small carrot, ½ large courgette, 4 asparagus spears, a handful of spinach leaves, 4 artichoke hearts, handful of petit pois and a large handful of mixed fresh herbs.
I broke the ends off the stems of the asparagus. This is the best way to prepare asparagus for any kind of cooking. The stem will break at just the right point. I left the very top spear intact and finely sliced the stem. I also peeled and finely chopped the shallot, carrot and celery. I cut the courgette into small cubes. I sliced the artichoke hearts into half lengthways.
In a small pan I fried the courgettes pieces gently in a little olive oil until starting to brown.
I removed them to a dish, cleaned the pan with kitchen towel, added a little more oil and gently cooked the spinach leaves until just starting to wilt.
Rather than ‘cooking’ the peas, I just poured some boiling water with a little salt over a handful, left for a couple of minutes and then drained. Frozen petit pois barely need cooking and this softens them just enough for adding to a rice or pasta dish.
I chopped my chosen herbs finely.
Meanwhile, in a big pan, I got the main part of the risotto under way. Risotto originates in the Veneto and they use a lot of butter there – as in most of northern Italy. However, I don’t like to add too much butter and just add some at the end. I begin with olive oil. I poured a little oil in the pan and then gently fried the asparagus stems, shallot, carrot and celery until starting to colour.
This is the soffrito and allowing it to colour gives a lot of flavour to the finished dish. Then I added half a cup (just one serving) of risotto rice and stirred to coat all the grains well.
Next I added a good glug of dry vermouth (or white wine if you have some open), stirred and let it be absorbed by the rice. Then I started ladling in a little hot stock a spoonful at a time. Stir well and keep stirring to break down the starch in the rice and get a creamy effect. As the stock is absorbed, add a little more.
When I judged the rice was about half cooked I added the prepared courgettes and spinach.
I stirred and mixed together and after a minute or two added the asparagus tips and artichoke.
Again, I stirred and let it cook for a couple of minutes and then added the peas and the herbs.
I stirred together and at this point put a lid on so that the asparagus tips would cook more quickly in some steam. I checked after a couple of minutes with a small sharp knife that they were just tender. Also check the rice is tender. Now your risotto is nearly ready but first add a good chunk of butter and grating of Parmesan.
Stir well. Turn the heat off and put the lid back on and allow to rest for a minute or two. Now your risotto is ready! Spoon carefully onto a deep plate, grate over a little more Parmesan and then drizzle over a little olive oil.
OK. So it didn’t quite look like the one at Locanda Cipriani. It wasn’t as green and nor was it as creamy – despite my stirring and using vialone nano rice. However, it was still pretty wonderful and looked a lot like the Primavera Risotto in Antonio Carluccio’s Italia book. In fact – all modesty put aside – it was fabulous. The rice was cooked perfectly al dente. Each vegetable was perfectly cooked and had retained its own distinctive flavour which blended beautifully with all the rest. It was a real taste of spring: bright, fresh and fragrant. If my garden didn’t quite match Locanda Cipriani’s elegance it was still looking good after my recent efforts to get it into shape and many plants are in blossom. The jasmine growing along a wall cast a beautiful heavy perfume into the air.
Birds were singing loudly in the trees – an evening birdsong and a delightful accompaniment to my supper. What a lovely meal to end a perfectly gorgeous spring day full of sunshine and warmth. Why not make your own spring risotto – Risotto Primavera – and add your own choice of your favourite spring vegetables?