I’m celebrating the imminent arrival of spring with a light, lemony risotto. This is my favorite way to eat and I always revert to it when I’m cooking just for myself. No meat, just the luscious green of the asparagus that’s been singed to bring out its flavor, the harmony of three Italian cheeses, fresh thyme added at the very last minute, and of course the glorious lemon.
The risotto gets its golden color from a pinch of saffron added to the broth as it simmers. Saffron has a subtle flavor, but I mostly used it for its color, to echo the beautiful lemon. When it came to naming this recipe, it was a toss up as to which element should get top billing. The lemon won out in the end because it gives this risotto its character.
I don’t think risotto deserves its reputation as being a nightmare to cook. If you get everything prepped ahead of time, it’s actually kind of relaxing. Once you get into the ladle and stir rhythm it’s basically on auto-pilot.
The high starch content of arborio rice makes risotto naturally creamy, but in this case it’s enhanced by the rich marscapone cheese which makes it almost custard like. If you want to make this really special you can add some shrimp. Grill them (with the tails still attached) along with the asparagus and add them both to the risotto at the end.
- 1 lb asparagus
- 1 small onion, minced
- 1 large shallot, minced
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 1 cup arborio rice
- the juice and zest of 1 lemon
- 1/3 cup Marsala wine (or any dry white wine)
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 2 cups water
- pinch of saffron
- 2-3 oz mascarpone cheese (about 1/3 of the 8 oz tub)
- 1/2 cup shredded Asiago cheese
- 1/ 3 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
- fresh thyme sprigs
- salt and fresh pepper
- Set oven to 450F
- Wash and trim the bottom third off the asparagus. Lay it out on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Roll the asparagus in the oil to coat. Roast in the pre-heated oven for 5 minutes. You can also use a grill, or the broiler. Just don't overcook it. Remove to a cutting board and slice on a diagonal into bite sized pieces. Set aside.
- In a small saucepan heat the stock and water to a simmer. Add in the saffron threads. Keep it hot on the stove.
- In a heavy wide bottomed pot, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Saute the onion and shallot for about 5 minutes until translucent, do not brown.
- Add in the rice and stir to coat the rice with the oil and butter. Cook for a minute or two.
- Add in the lemon juice and stir until absorbed.
- Add in the wine and stir till absorbed.
- Using a large ladle or a cup measure, scoop about 2/3 cup hot stock into the rice and stir until it is almost completely absorbed. Make sure you have the heat on high enough so that the slow simmer never stops, but not so high that the rice sticks.
- Continue adding the broth as soon as the previous cup has been absorbed, when you can drag the spoon along the bottom of the pan and the rice parts with no thin liquid immediately filling in the gap.
- When you start to get toward the end of the broth, taste the rice to see how much longer it needs. Just like with pasta, you want it al dente...not mushy. I usually have about a cup of broth leftover. This will usually take about 35-40 minutes, give or take.
- At the end, turn off the heat, add the cheeses and the asparagus. Gently strip the leaves from several sprigs of fresh thyme and add in as well. Stir to combine and melt the cheeses, Check your seasonings, add more salt and pepper if needed. If the cheese has absorbed liquid and the risotto is dry, add a bit more broth. I like to serve my risotto a little on the wet side, in shallow bowls. It tends to thicken as it sits. Garnish with thyme and lemon zest.
Notes: There are a couple of secrets to success: have your broth at a simmer when you add it to the risotto pot, you want the rice to stay at a simmering temperature, that way the rice absorbs the liquid at the right speed. Don’t over cook the asparagus, and only add it to the risotto at the very end. It will be tender yet still firm. Risotto is traditionally stirred with a wooden spoon but I like to use a large silicone spatula which makes it really easy to keep the starchy rice from sticking and/or scorching on the sides and bottom of the pot.