Just last week, we were doused with yet another batch of what meteorologists call “wintry mix.” “Wintry mix” sounds like a cheeky and fun Christmas music playlist. In actuality, wintry mix is a miserable combination of rain and snow, usually delivered sideways by frigid winds on the day you’ve decided to will springtime into existence by wearing your lightweight coat. Chilling you to the bone, wintry mix reminds you that Mother Nature, like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” will not be ignored! They don’t call April “the cruelest month” for nothing.
April in New York City can be heavenly, though. After what has felt like an interminable winter, yesterday dawned balmy and clear. The scent of hyacinth followed me down 5th Avenue, rendering me powerless against the floral frocks and white cotton blouses in the window of H&M. And next weekend I’m attending a “Blossom Brunch,” where some Brooklyn ladies and I will sip mimosas to a Blossom Dearie soundtrack, then head to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens to take in the cherry blossoms. Happily, spring finally seems to be, well, springing.
For a recent mid-week dinner, I wanted something delicate enough to celebrate spring’s audacious spirit of renewal, but rib-sticking enough to fortify me against any unexpected final throes of “wintry mix.” I decided on a spring vegetable risotto, and Ina Garten’s recipe did not disappoint. Fennel and leek were sautéed at the outset with olive oil and butter, providing a nuanced but assertive flavor backdrop for verdant baby asparagus and peas. Fresh lemon juice and zest, together with mascarpone cheese, suffused the risotto with just the right blend of piquancy and richness. And the half-hour I spent meditatively stirring (and stirring, and stirring) suffused me with kitchen zen.
In her cookbook, Ina describes risotto as a great “last-minute” dinner. Really, Ina? Risotto requires around 30 minutes of non-stop stirring, to say nothing of the prep time involved. No, spring vegetable risotto is not quick to arrive at your table, but like springtime itself, it’s well worth the wait. A somewhat modified version of Ina’s recipe is below. Happy cooking, and happy spring!
Spring Green Risotto (adapted from Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics)
1 & 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 & 1/2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 leeks, chopped (white & light green parts only)
1 cup chopped fennel (I used one bulb & it was just the right amount)
1 & 1/2 cup arborio rice
2/3 cup dry white wine
4 to 5 cup simmering chicken stock (unlike Ina, I don’t care if you use homemade or store-bought; we used organic store-bought and it was great)
1 lb. asparagus
10 oz. frozen peas, defrosted
juice and zest from 2 lemons
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano (extra to serve)
3 Tbsp. minced chives (extra to serve)
Heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Sauté the leeks and fennel for 5-7 mins., until tender. Add the rice and stir for a minute until each grain is coated in the vegetables, oil and butter. Add the white wine; simmer over low heat, stirring constantly, until most of the wine has been absorbed. Add the chicken stock, a couple of ladles at a time, stirring almost constantly; wait for the stock to be absorbed before adding more (this will take 25 to 30 mins.).
Meanwhile, cut the asparagus into 1 & 1/2 inch pieces, discarding the tough ends. Blanch in boiling salted water until al dente (4 to 5 mins.). Drain and cool immediately in ice water.
When the risotto has been cooking for 15 minutes, drain the asparagus and add it to the risotto with the peas, lemon zest, and salt & pepper to taste. Continue cooking and adding stock, stirring almost constantly, until the rice is tender but firm.
Whisk the lemon juice and mascarpone together in a small bowl. When the risotto is done, turn off the heat and stir in the mascarpone mixture plus the Parmigiano and chives. Serve hot with a sprinkling of chives and more Parmigiano.