The Food Lab's Asparagus Week, Day 3: Asparagus and Spring Vegetable Risotto
It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
I've already gone deep into the science of risotto in the past, so there's no real need to re-tread in already-been-treaded-in waters. Suffice it to say, the key to great texture and flavor is to rinse the rice first, save that starchy water, and use it to thicken up the risotto at the end. This lets you get a good amount of nutty toasting on the grains while still maintaining the starch's thickening power.
What we're here to talk about today is vegetables—in particular, asparagus and morel mushrooms. The two are partners in crime that could give Pinky and The Brain a run for their money in terms of sheer awesomeness, and now's the time of year to get 'em.
And while we're at it—oh, what the heck—let's grab a few more of my favorite spring vegetables as well. You can use any green vegetables you'd like, but here are some of my favorites. Whatever you do, just don't add any ramps to this recipe. I hate those disgusting things and frown upon anybody who cares for them. Seriously.
Let's start with fava beans. The bane of every prep cook's existence, these mildly flavored, bright green beans need to be shucked not once, but twice. After popping them out of their big pods (that's the easy part), they then have to have their individual skins removed from each bean. It's not fun. Fortunately, there's an easy way to do it: blanch them first.
After a brief boil in water, they not only slip out of their skins with an easy squeeze, but they actually achieve a brighter green color than they do if you blanch them post-peeling. That's a win-win.
When shopping for favas, look for whole pods that are firm and snap when you start to bend them. Older fava pods will be spongy and bendy. Older fava pods contain older fava beans, which is not what you want.
Asparagus comes in a few different colors and sizes. Between the fat purple and green varieties, you actually won't find much difference in flavor (I like to mix them anyway, because it makes the dish look prettier). White asparagus, on the other hand, does have a different flavor. Delicate and slightly bitter, with a deeper earthiness than its colored counterparts.
I blanch my asparagus in the same water I blanched my fava beans in, which I eventually use to cook my rice as well. That way any flavor that gets blanched out of the vegetables gets added right back to the pot as it cooks. Effectively, it's like making a quick vegetable stock.
Normally I wouldn't blanch zucchini—they're so bland and watery that boiling them renders them completely lifeless. Baby zucchini, on the other hand, are more intense in flavor and take well to blanching.
Finally, snap peas are particularly bright and sweet this time of year. Just like with favas, look for whole pods that are stiff and snappy. They don't get any crunchier when they cook.
The only tough part about this recipe is the morels. Fresh morels are really tough to find, and when you do, extraordinarily expensive. Luckily, this recipe is one of the rare cases where dried mushrooms are actually better.
The key to great flavored risotto is to start with great flavored liquid. Dried mushrooms offer you the perfect opportunity. Once you've blanched your vegetables, you can use that same flavorful water to re-hydrate your mushrooms (the fastest way is to microwave the 'shrooms in the water. Heat speeds up the hydration process). The water that comes off the mushrooms when you drain them should be deep, dark brown and intensely flavorful. This translates to deep, dark brown, and intensely flavorful risotto.
After cooking the rice until nice and creamy, all that's left is to stir the blanched vegetables into the pot and sauté your reconstituted mushrooms. It's bright and springy but still rib-sticking and filling. Perfect for the occasional drizzly day in May.
Get The Recipe!
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.