Today finally really felt like spring. Walker and I rode our bikes around the city – up to the spice store, where I went looking for poppy seeds, over to buy dog food for the hungry puppy in our lives, and then past my office to a little produce vendor who I have grown to know and love.

I always stop in when I’m close by. Sometimes I make a lunch out of things I find at her shop during the middle of a work day. She carries foreign cheeses, and sells avocados for $1.50 each, and pints of blueberries for $2.75 each. Just for comparison’s sake, if I were to get an avocado and the same pint of blueberries at the foreign stores, it would cost me about $5 and $8, respectively.

I love supporting her. She speaks no real English, but she can say the words for every item she carries, and she knows what you’re asking for if you ask her in English. Because we started off in Beijing where English is far less prevalent, I had learned to ask for my produce and cheese in Chinese, but for those expats who have not had the luxury to study Chinese in school, she is a real help, as well as a great way to save a little money in a very expensive city. (She is located at the intersection of Wulumuqi Lu and Anfu Lu, for those of you who read this and are ever in Shanghai.)

Her shop had exploded in color. There were fresh fava beans, and lemongrass, and sweet peas and asparagus stalks, and beautiful mint. It was overwhelming. Winter is the time of dark greens – spinach, broccoli. Spring is about light and bright greens, and the shop reflected the changing seasons in Shanghai. The shopkeeper had also just gotten in some Arborrio rice, and so I picked up two boxes to keep in the pantry. I loaded up both Walker’s and my  bicycle baskets with fresh produce, tied the dog food to the back of my bike, and wobbled home to make dinner.

That Arborrio rice would make a perfect risotto, though I had never made risotto before, and I had seen a recipe that called for big beautiful Spring veggies recently at The Dog’s Breakfast. It was the perfect opportunity to venture into the world of risottos. We opened up the porch off the kitchen, turned on some Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duets, and ate our fresh spring dinner under the stars.

Two tips: do make sure all of the liquid that you add to the risotto is warmed first. If it isn’t, adding it will shock the rice and it will stop absorbing any more liquid. You’ll end up with a soupy mess instead of a creamy risotto. And second, stir those beautiful green veggies in very last minute, or they will start to lose that brilliant color.

Lemon and Spring Vegetable Risotto
adapted liberally from The Dog’s Breakfast
serves 6 for dinner

Ingredients

¼ C olive oil
generous handful of lardons or pancetta
2 medium onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tbsp.)
2 cup Arborio rice
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup lemon juice
1 tbsp lemon zest
6 to 8 cups hot chicken stock
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
½ C mascarpone (traditional risottos have no cream in them, and this would be great without it. I used 1/3 cup cream cheese)
2 C peas
1 bunch of asparagus, cut into 2-inch lengths and blanched in salted, boiling water
up to 1 teaspoon sea salt, to taste
freshly ground white pepper

Preparation

1. Prepare all of your risotto ingredients: blanch the asparagus, heat the stock, chop and measure everything out, placing it all close to hand by the stove. I never do a mise-en-place, and even I set up ingredients to be at hand for a risotto. You have to watch it, and the ingredients have to be there right that second when you need them.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the lardons and fry until slightly crisped. Add the onion and garlic and sweat over low heat for about 10 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Season with salt about halfway through.

3. Add the rice and raise the heat to medium high. Stir to coat and slightly toast the rice for about 3 minutes. You should hear a lively crackling in the pot. The rice will take on a shiny, translucent coat.

4. Add the white wine and lemon juice to the rice and continue stirring until the liquid is almost completely absorbed.

5. Add a ladleful of hot stock to the rice and continue stirring. It’s important to regulate the heat at this point. The rice should neither boil vigorously nor cook too slowly. You’re looking for an even, medium heat that gives the rice a billowy loft and brings some bubbles to the surface.

6. As the stock is absorbed, continue adding it by ladlefuls and stirring. Towards the end of the absorption process, the rice will start to release its starch making the surrounding liquid creamy. Stop incorporating stock once the rice is creamy but still al dente, cooked but not too soft. This can take between 20 and 30 minutes, and between 6 and 8 cups of stock.

7. Remove the risotto from the heat, and immediately fold in the butter, mascarpone, lemon zest, peas, several grinds of white pepper. The heat of the risotto will cook the peas. Stir slowly to blend, check a final time for seasoning, and gently fold in the asparagus.

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