Sunday, May 15, 2011

Spring Vegetable Risotto

One of my favorite things about living in Atlanta is that we get seasons. By that, I mean that there are distinctive differences between summer, fall, winter, and spring. Summer is brutally hot, usually humid, and lasts far too long if you ask me (as in, four-plus months of at least 90-degree weather). Fall is strange, characterized by moderate weather that creeps up on you very quickly (but it still is my favorite season). The only nice thing about winter here is the cute knitted items my mom makes for me, but other than that, no redeeming qualities. Spring is nice, though. Moderate temperatures, slight breezes, the first sign of life after a few months of gray skies. The only problem is that it just doesn't last long enough. Before I know it, it's too hot to roll down my windows when driving lest I melt from the searing temperatures. Still, after a winter full of citrus fruits (not my favorite) and... not much else, bright red fresh strawberries are just the thing to give me a case of spring fever. Of course, those usually arrive in late February or early March, when spring hasn't officially "sprung," so there are still more weeks to wait before the season's characteristic produce makes its way into markets. But once it does? Oh, I love spring.
One of my favorite ways to highlight seasonal produce is to make risotto. In fall, it's delicious with sauteed butternut squash and hints of saffron; wild mushrooms in winter make a wonderful savory risotto. We really enjoyed this version, which used a medley of asparagus, broccoli, fennel, and onions. Carrots would also be delicious, as would green peas. Some shrimp added while the rice is cooking can also bring it into true main dish territory (we are perfectly happy with a meatless risotto as the main dish with a green salad and good bread to accompany).

Risotto often gets a reputation for being a fussy, time-consuming dish, but the truth is that I think it's actually very low-maintenance. Despite what others say, you really don't have to stir it constantly for close to an hour. A few seconds of good stirring every few minutes will leave you with a perfectly creamy (yet creamless) final product.
Like many of my other favorite things to cook up in the kitchen, I love risotto because it feels like a fancy or special-occasion food but is so simple and easy to make and can be recreated in countless ways (see: cheesecake). The work is minimal but the payoff is a superb, unbeatable combination: a creamy and colorful rice brimming with the freshest vegetables that the season has to offer. A love letter to spring. Now, if only the 75-degree weather would return...

Spring Vegetable Risotto 
Inspired by Ina Garten 

To prepare the fennel, first reserve the fronds. Then chop the top stalks off and discard. Slice the bulb in half. To remove the core, make two 45-degree cuts into the core (it is a triangular solid whitish section at the bottom of the bulb) and remove the core. To prepare the asparagus, place one hand at each end of the stalk and bend until the asparagus snaps. Instead of or in addition to broccoli, consider adding green peas. If they're frozen, add them at the very end of the cooking time (no need to defrost). If they're fresh, blanch them for a few minutes until the starchiness is cooked off. Cooked shrimp would also be a delicious addition to this risotto.

Yield: 6-8 servings

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 fennel bulb, cored and diced, fronds reserved (see Note)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed (see Note)
10 ounces chopped broccoli
Zest of 1 lemon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and fennel and saute for 5 to 7 minutes, until the onions are translucent and both the onion and fennel have softened. Add the Arborio rice and stir to incorporate. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes; the ends of the rice grains will begin to look translucent. Add the wine and stir to deglaze the pan. Once the wine is absorbed, begin adding the chicken stock. Add the stock about 1 1/2 cups at a time, stirring to incorporate the stock at first. If you like, you can stir constantly, but if you don't enjoy standing over a hot stove, allow the rice to simmer away for a few minutes unattended, stirring every few minutes. Once all the stock has been absorbed, add 1 1/2 more cups until all the stock is gone or the rice is al dente, whichever comes first.

Meanwhile, while the rice is cooking, cut the asparagus into 1-inch pieces. Blanch the asparagus and broccoli briefly either in the microwave or in a pot on the stove. To blanch in the microwave, put the vegetables in a microwave-safe bowl, add enough water to come half-way up the vegetables, and microwave on high for about 2 minutes; then drain the vegetables. To blanch in a pot on the stove, heat a medium saucepan full of water. Once the water comes to a boil, add the vegetables and cook for about 4 minutes; then drain the vegetables. The asparagus and broccoli should be bright green and al dente.

Once half the stock is gone, add the asparagus and broccoli to the rice. Continue adding stock incrementally as before. When the rice is done, add the lemon zest, reserved fennel fronds, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

The risotto will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

For Mom

I’m pretty apathetic toward many of the “holidays” Americans choose to celebrate. (I’m looking at you, April Fool’s Day, Groundhog Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Official Grilled Cheese Month, and Super Bowl Sunday.) But Mother’s Day? That’s a whole other story! I love Mother’s Day! Certainly it’s not the only day a year where I celebrate my fabulous mother, but it is the only government-recognized day, so I guess that makes it more fancy.

Over time my gifts have evolved from felt-decorated picture frames and mix CDs to home-cooked meals, which are so much better, if not decidedly permanent. Tonight I will be treating my mom to a nice hot dinner (and I’ll clean up, of course!), but this morning I thought she’d also like a whole space over here dedicated to her.

My mom has taught me so much. She’s the person that I call when I’m feeling stressed out and overwhelmed; she’s the person I ask for advice; she’s the person whose opinion I seek on what really matters (ranging variously from clothes to school and everything in between).  When I first began to compile a list of things she’s taught me, it was clear the complete list would be longer than is an acceptable length, but here’s an abbreviated list….

Things I learned from my mother, food-related and otherwise: 

1. How to make coffee. Two rounded scoops each of regular and decaf coffee.  Always bold, never mild.  (For the record, hers always tastes better to me.)

2. Thanksgiving foods. One of my favorite parts about Thanksgiving is cooking with her in the morning. It’s the culmination of so much planning (mostly on my side; I obsessively think about the day for weeks months).  In the past few years, I’ve really started to rack her brain about how to make the foods we eat every year, from stuffing to carrot ring. I really love those hours we get to spend cooking together every year.
Thanksgiving 2008: A whirlwind. 
3. How to do laundry. I’m continually surprised how many college-age kids don’t know how to do laundry properly. As in, throw everything in one load and dry everything together. It took me a while to get it right, but now it’s practically second-nature. It may take a little longer, but I do believe it’s important to do it right (that means line-drying a lot of things, and doing at least three loads).

4. The importance of green vegetables. When most people plan meals, the courses revolve around the meat or protein. I’ve learned that they should revolved around the vegetables. And it’s important to have at least two. After all, you can never have too much fruit and vegetables.

5. Always make your own salad dressing. And I’ve therefore become a salad dressing snob.

6. So many knitting terms it’s crazy. For someone who does not knit, I know a lot about it. From weird garment names (clapotis, top-down sweaters, vanilla socks) to what the numbers of the needles means to even the abbreviations on the pattern charts, knowing all this stuff allows me to follow what many of our conversations seem to about. (She similarly indulges my food-speak and Grey’s Anatomy forum gossip.)

7. Always buy organic milk. It lasts so much longer than regular milk, which justifies the slightly higher price. The health benefits aren’t too bad, either.

8. In the kitchen, a sponge is not a suitable cleaning tool. I finally learned after hearing it for the umpteenth time.

9. You don’t have to do it all yourself. Sometimes it’s okay to say no. I really don’t have to make homemade rolls on Thanksgiving or four different desserts (just remember come this November). But outside of the food world, it’s even more valuable.  It’s okay to ask for help. It doesn’t make you weak, it makes you smart.

… And I’m still learning.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! I love you!