Although some risotti may seem relatively simple, no two versions are ever the same. Take risotto milanese: the ingredients should be straightforward enough – rice, onion, stock, bone
marrow, saffron, butter
and perhaps Parmesan cheese. Then the variables take over: which rice, for example, arborio, carnaroli, vialone nano or some more obscure variety? And the stock, should it be chicken, beef or all-purpose broth? How many people actually add bone marrow to the risotto and, if so, do they still add butter and cheese at the end (not I)? The saffron alone causes an affray, being often too much, occasionally not enough or, much worse, none at all.
If the most basic risotto of all creates such controversy, imagine the problem with a classic such as risotto primavera. One could argue about the stock: most would use chicken stock but I, slightly heretically, put none in mine, wanting to emphasise a springtime freshness to the flavour of the vegetables rather than gain that extra richness that comes from using a good stock. Let us not begin to imagine the arguments as to the correct litany of vegetables worthy of inclusion because the real controversy, to my mind, is in the method.
The essence of the problem with risotto primavera is that it must, surely, be a showcase for the glories of the spring vegetable harvest, the little carrots and turnips, the asparagus, artichokes, peas and broad beans, all fabulously tender and sweet that are shooting up at this time of year. However, risotto is a rice dish: it is all about the
rice, the flavour one imbues in the rice and the silky texture achieved in the process. Any other ingredients exist to enhance that flavour rather than to
serve any integral identity of their own and there is nothing more annoying than extraneous ingredients arbitrarily tacked on to the dish at the end.
I used to follow this purist line to the letter and insisted that my cooks add the vegetables before the rice so that all their juices would be absorbed by the rice. The result was rich in flavour but, instead of being a Botticelli-like celebration of the joyous kaleidoscope of spring, it looked like sludge, albeit sludge punctuated by a bit of carrot.
For all its correctness, I could see it was a dispiriting affair. It was similar to the white truffle risotto I made, which was beautifully imbibed with the flavour of the truffle that I sacrificed to its conception. Still, I resented adding more truffle at the end – an idea that underwhelmed those who were served this expensive delicacy. The fact that the dish represented good value in its truffle quotient was irrelevant: it should also have been seen to represent that value. Similarly, the joys of spring were of no use hidden under a blanket of rice any more than we want to look at Botticelli in black and white.
Carnaroli is considered the most tolerant of the risotto rices and less glutinous than Arborio or vialone nano but any of these will do very well. Serves six.
500g broad beans in the pod
300g peas in the pod
15 spears asparagus
6 small spring turnips
200g baby carrots
50g unsalted butter
2 bunches bulbous spring onions
6 baby artichokes
500g carnaroli rice
200ml prosecco or champagne
50g Parmesan Reggiano
● Bring two litres of water with a teaspoon of salt to the boil. Pod the broad beans and drop them in the boiling water for one minute and then drop them into a bowl of iced water. Nicking the beans with the thumbnail, pop the bright green kernels of the beans out of their skins and keep to one side. Pod the peas and drop these also in the boiling water for one minute, refresh in cold water and reserve. Peel the asparagus stalks and boil these in turn for three minutes and then refresh in turn. Peel the turnips, cut into centimetre cubes and boil these in the same water for two minutes. Remove the turnips and keep the vegetable water hot.
● Peel the carrots and cut them into pieces of one centimetre in length. Put in a small saucepan and add a pinch of sugar and salt, cover, just, with cold water and a piece of buttered paper and place on a lively heat for 10 minutes until the carrots are tender. Trim the spring onions at the base and cut away the green stalks leaving the white bulb and a couple of centimetres of white stalk. Place in another small saucepan with a small knob of butter, a pinch of salt and four tablespoons of water and stew gently for 10 minutes.
● With a small sharp knife, cut away the leaves of the baby artichokes and peel the stalks with a potato peeler. Continuing with the potato peeler, shape the artichokes nicely removing any green stalky areas from the heart. Quarter the artichokes and toss them in the juice of a lemon. Melt half the butter in a wide saucepan and add the artichokes, letting them stew very gently for five minutes before adding the rice. Stir the rice very well until completely coated in the butter, season with a little sea salt and milled white pepper and then add the sparkling wine. Stir well on a gentle heat until the wine is absorbed and then add the carrots and their liquor and then the spring onions and their liquid.
● Continue to stir and cook the risotto, progressively ladling in a little of the vegetable water. Cut the asparagus spears into two-centimetre lengths and put the broad beans, peas, turnips and asparagus together in a sieve. After approximately 18 minutes the rice should be just cooked through and the hard white chalky interior just dissolved. At this point lower the sieve full of vegetables into the remaining vegetable water for 30 seconds and then add to the risotto. Check the seasoning and then stir in the remaining butter. Correct the consistency – without being soupy, the risotto should be loose and moist – and then take to the table, accompanied by the grated cheese.
Rowley Leigh’s book, ‘No Place Like Home’ (Fourth Estate), is now available in paperback.
More columns at www.ft.com/leigh
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