JeanMarie Brownson: Freshen up your menu with this spring risotto

<p>All great risottos are dependent on four ingredients.</p>

JeanMarie Brownson/TNS

All great risottos are dependent on four ingredients.

Spring, in most of this country, means burgeoning offerings at farmers markets and produce stands. Locally grown fresh peas and asparagus deserve our attention; they are the outstanding versions of the year-round supermarket options. These two vegetables, perhaps more than any others, are never better than when cooked and eaten shortly after harvest.

After I’ve had my fill of simply steamed asparagus and lavishly buttered peas, I turn them into a beautiful springtime risotto. They add brightness, texture and rich green flavor to the creamy rice dish. A swirl of oil, laced with just-harvested herbs, puts this version over the top.

All great risottos are dependent on four ingredients: The correct rice, a delicious broth, a little flavorful fat and interesting add-ins, in this case the fresh vegetables. Time and patience add to your risotto success.

Most rice for risotto, such as Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano, hails from Northern Italy. This short-grain rice has a high starch content giving it the ability to absorb lots of cooking liquid without splitting. The grains develop a creamy consistency that Italians call all’onda (waviness); each kernel stays firm yet soft. Look for these risotto rice on-line or in the imported foods section of large supermarkets or specialty grocery stores. Check the best-by date on the packages, the fresher the rice the better.

I like to serve this risotto as a meatless main accompanied by a gorgeous, very cold, mixed lettuce salad dressed with a fresh lemon vinaigrette.

Springtime Risotto with Asparagus, Peas and Herbs

Makes 4 to 6 servings

TIPS: You can use 4 cups of nearly any cooked vegetable, such as roasted butternut, grilled zucchini, steamed broccoli, in place of the asparagus and peas in this recipe. Enrich store-bought broth by simmering it with asparagus trimmings and garlic.

  • 1 small bunch, 10 ounces, skinny asparagus, well rinsed
  • 6 cups low-sodium vegetable broth or chicken broth
  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup (3 ounces) fresh sugar snap peas, strings removed (or frozen)
  • 1 cup (5 ounces) shelled fresh peas (or frozen)
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil or butter or a combination
  • 1 small leek, white part only, thinly sliced or 1/2 cup sliced yellow onion
  • 1 1/2 cups (10 ounces) Arborio or Carnaroli risotto rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or broth
  • 1/2 cup (1 1/2 ounces) finely shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) soft goat cheese
  • Salt, freshly ground black pepper
  • Herb Oil, see recipe

1. Cut asparagus crosswise in half. Cut top half of the asparagus spears on the diagonal into 2-inch lengths. Reserve for later.

2. Roughly chop the bottom half of the asparagus spears and put them into a saucepan with the broth and garlic. Simmer to extract the flavor, 20 to 30 minutes. Strain and return the broth to the pan. You should have about 5 cups. Discard the solids in the strainer. (Refrigerate broth covered for up to three days.)

3. Cut pea pods crosswise in half. Put reserved asparagus pieces, pea pods and peas into a large microwave-safe bowl. Add 1/2 cup water and cover the bowl tightly with a lid or plastic wrap vented at one corner. Microwave on high (100% power) stirring once or twice, until vegetables are crisp-tender and bright green, about 4 minutes (add 1 to 2 minutes if using frozen vegetables). Drain; cool. (Refrigerate vegetables covered up to 3 days.)

4. When you’re ready to cook the risotto, reheat broth over medium heat; keep warm.

5. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed 3- to 4-quart saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat until melted. Add leek; saute until tender, about 4 minutes. Add the rice and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly so it’s well coated in the oil, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in wine; cook and stir until rice has absorbed the wine, about 4 minutes.

6. Using a ladle, add 1/2 cup of the hot broth to the rice mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, while the rice absorbs the liquid, about 4 minutes. Repeat to add the 5 cups broth, in 1/2 cup increments, until rice is cooked through but still retains a little texture when bitten, 25 to 30 minutes in total.

7. Gently fold in cooked vegetables and cook to heat them through, 2 to 3 minutes. Fold in cheeses until melted. Season with salt, usually 1/2 teaspoon, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Serve in shallow bowls with a generous swirl of Herb Oil.

NOTE: This recipe can be made in an Instant Pot according to manufacturer’s directions; reduce broth used to 4 cups.

HERB OIL: Put 1 cup mixed fresh herbs, such as cilantro leaves, fresh mint leaves, flat-leaf parsley and fresh basil leaves into a blender. Add 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Use on/off turns to finely chop the herbs in the oil. Refrigerate up to several days. Use at room temperature.

(JeanMarie Brownson is a James Beard Award-winning author and the recipient of the IACP Cookbook Award for her latest cookbook, “Dinner at Home.” JeanMarie, a chef and authority on home cooking, Mexican cooking and specialty food, is one of the founding partners of Frontera Foods. She co-authored three cookbooks with chef Rick Bayless, including “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.” JeanMarie has enjoyed developing recipes and writing about food, travel and dining for more than four decades.)