This risotto recipe is typical of Tuscany and Northern Italy, where asparagus is a symbol of Spring. I use a local asparagus variety that is smaller but tastier than bigger varieties. Risotto is a much appreciated first course on Italian tables, and while this recipe can be used with other vegetables, the main steps are the same.
The origin of this dish is quite ancient. News of the cultivation of rice in Italy date back to the 15th century. Rice has come a long way, since it was domesticated from the wild Oryza rufipogon grass roughly 10,000–14,000 years ago the middle Yangtze and upper Huai rivers, as archaeological evidence points out.
In Italy, rice was an exotic grain introduced by the Arabs in Sicily, and later by the Aragon Dynasty during their domination of the kingdom of Naples. From there, it slowly spread north, to Tuscany and later to Lombardy, under the rule of Lodovico Sforza. Since the great Leonardo da Vinci was working at his court at the time, some Lombards like to think that Leonardo himself suggested transforming the Lombard marshes into rice paddies, but there is no historical evidence of it. What we know for sure, from diplomatic correspondence, is that rice was cultivated in Milan, and in 1375 Lodovico sent some sacks of rice to the Dukedom of Ferrara as a gift, in order to introduce its cultivation in Ferrara too.
The typical Italian rice is derived from the Japonica variety, more adaptable in the temperate regions of Europe.
In some way, this risotto with vegetables is a variation of more prestigious recipes, like the typical Milanese risotto with saffron, of which we have a recipe by Leonardo. As rice was still an exotic and expensive grain, it was eaten at the courts, and enhanced with other precious ingredients such as saffron, cinnamon, or the addition of savoury meat stock. It later developed into fantastic dishes such as Parmigiano risotto or the Champagne risotto.
Prep Time: 10 minutes | Cooking Time: 30 minutes | Total Time: 40 minutes | Yield: Makes 4 servings.
- 1 lb (400 g) asparagus, washed
- 12 oz (300 g) Carnaroli or Arborio rice
- 4 tbsp (60 g) butter
- ½ white or yellow onion, minced
- 2 cups (500 ml) vegetable stock, warm
- 3 tbsp grated Parmigiano
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Sea salt
Steam the asparagus for 10 minutes – they must be crisp.
Cut the tips and set aside. Chop the rest of the asparagus and set aside.
In a saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and sauté the asparagus tips for 1 minute. Meanwhile keep the vegetable stock warm.
In another saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the onion, stirring often, until golden and very soft, about 8–10 minutes. Add the rice. Stir until the grains become translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the asparagus (not the tips) and ladle in ½ cup of the broth and simmer, stirring frequently, until completely absorbed, 5–6 minutes.
Cook the rice according to the package instructions, stirring and adding the warm vegetable stock in small ladles as needed.
When rice is cooked al dente, turn off the stove and add the rest of the butter, stir, add the Parmesan, stir, add the asparagus tips and carefully stir.
Cover the saucepan with the lid and let it sit for a couple of minutes. Serve.