The only asparagus I remember from my childhood came from those thin jars that contained only a half dozen spears or so. Those spears probably grew in Peru, where most of North America’s imported asparagus comes from. They would have been shipped to a processing plant, where they were cooked until limp, a putrid shade of green. No wonder I never had any interest in asparagus.
Not until I started eating with the seasons, that is. When I committed to eating only in-season produce, I started keeping a mental calendar of what was available when and for how long.
In Ontario, asparagus season typically starts the first week of May, lasting 6 weeks or so. Every Saturday during that period, I visit the Kitchener market and buy 3 bunches (300-400 grams each) for $6. I live by myself, so that means I consume nearly 3 pounds of asparagus every week. I can eat it at every meal and I never tire of it. It is the truest harbinger of the new growing season, but I also happen to love its flavour.
Usually, I refuse to do anything more than lightly steam it. But I’ve grown interested in new preparations that lend themselves to having dinner guests. I don’t expect a lot of enthusiasm in response to invitations to eat nothing but steamed vegetables in my company. So, I started with sauces. First, walnut crema, then sauce gribiche. Neither of those is appropriate for Keira, who is meant to avoid nuts and uncooked eggs until she’s older.
So, I delved into the world of risotto, which I tend to think of as The Opposite of Minimal Preparation, but in reality just involves some stirring. My major challenge in developing a risotto for Keira is that babies are not supposed to have much sodium. I addressed this by making my own broth to control the amount of added salt, and adding fresh mint to brighten the final dish.
Asparagus Risotto (adapted from Amanda Hesser’s The Cook and the Gardener)
For the broth
Whenever I cook a bunch of asparagus, I put the woody ends in a bag in the freezer. I then use them to make the broth, but you could use other vegetables, such as pea pods or carrot peelings. Try to use only one or two different vegetables so you don’t end up with a weird-tasting broth.
About 250g asparagus ends
1 small onion, peeled and cut in half
About 6 woody thyme or parsley stalks
¼ tsp sea salt
Place all of the ingredients in a pot, add 1.5 litres of water, and cover. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Simmer, with the cover on, for about 25 minutes. Pour through a sieve and compost the spent vegetables. Keep the broth warm or room temperature while making the risotto.
For the risotto
1 batch of broth (see above)
30g unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
200g Arborio rice
About 350g bunch of asparagus (a little less or more is fine)
40g parmesan, finely grated
2-3 tablespoons of fresh mint, finely chopped (plus more, to serve)
Prepare the asparagus by cutting off the woody stems (keep these in the freezer to make more stock in the future). Slice the stalks into 5mm thick circles. Set aside.
In a medium pot, melt 15g of the butter with the olive oil. Add the onion and cook at medium-low until soft, but not brown. Add the rice, and stir until the tips of the grains start to appear translucent (2-3 minutes).
Add about 100mL of broth. Stir until the broth is almost entirely absorbed. Keep adding broth in this manner, stirring constantly and keeping the rice at a steady simmer. Allow the rice to absorb each addition before adding more broth.
After about 5 minutes, add the asparagus.
The whole process should take 20-25 minutes. Taste the rice at about 20 minutes. It’s done when it’s tender, but not mushy. You will probably use about a litre of the broth.
When the rice is done, take it off the heat, cover, and let it rest 1 minute.
Now add the remaining 15g of butter, the parmesan, and the mint. The risotto will likely be quite thick, making it ideal for babies to grab. Remove the baby’s portion.
Now, if you adhere to the gospel of Jamie Oliver (and I do), then you should probably add more broth to make the risotto somewhat loose, rather than gloppy. Now that you’ve removed the baby’s portion, you may also want to add a bit more salt to taste.
Serve the adults’ portions with a garnish of small mint leaves and freshly ground pepper.
Serves 4-6 adults.