Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hadley Grass and Fiddlehead Risotto

The May/June issue of Cook's Illustrated has an article titled "Rescuing Spring Vegetable Risotto." My risotto didn't need rescuing so much as a sunnier approach: my usual recipe results in a richly colored and scented rice, full of mushrooms and stock. I always use brown arborio rice, and sometimes I make it with lamb stock, for an extra-dark flavor. It's great for late fall, but not what I wanted now that the first spring vegetables are available. I was so excited to see Hadley grass (what the locals call asparagus) and fiddleheads for sale that I wanted to put them in a really special dish. So yesterday I took the Cook's Illustrated recipe and made a few modifications: I replaced the arborio rice with whole grain rice, and doubled the vegetables, including the garlic. You might be tempted to think I make these substitutions solely for health reasons, but I truly love the flavors of whole grains and fresh vegetables. I also replaced the peas in the recipe with fiddleheads, because—do you need a reason? If you're Kevin, you do: he plucked all of his out and put them on my plate. More for me: I love these little things. They always remind me of shrimp, because of their shape, and how delicious they are sautéed with butter and garlic.

This recipe introduced me to "gremolata," a muddled combination of fresh chopped parsley and mint with lemon zest, which makes a bright garnish, perfect for spring vegetable dishes. It also gave me a great use for all the trimmings from these fresh vegetables and herbs: you stew them in the stock and water used to make the risotto, thereby infusing the rice with their flavors. I'm planning to make a batch of vegetable stock this week, so I reserved half the trimmings from the asparagus, fiddleheads, garlic, and leeks for this purpose, and put the other half in the stock as below.

Hadley Grass and Fiddlehead Risotto

Makes 6-8 servings as a side dish.

1/4 cup Italian flat-leaf parsley, stems reserved
1/4 cup spearmint leaves, stems reserved
1 lemon
2 lbs asparagus
1 lb fiddleheads
2 leeks
2 shallots
1 head of garlic
5 cups chicken stock
3 cups water
1/4 lb butter
salt and black pepper
2 cups short-grain brown rice (arborio is preferable)
1 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Zest the lemon, reserving the lemon for its juice, and finely chop the parsley and mint leaves, reserving the stems for the stock. Combine the lemon zest and herbs, and set aside.

Snap the asparagus to remove the woody ends; reserve the tough ends of the asparagus for the stock. Chop the tender parts of the asparagus into roughly one-inch lengths.

Trim the ends from the fiddleheads, and reserve the ends for the stock. Slice the white and light green portions of the leeks. Trim and slice the shallot. Trim and mince the garlic.

Put all of the trimmings from the leeks, shallots, and onions with the trimmings from the asparagus and fiddleheads into a large pot with the stock and water. Bring to a gentle simmer for about 20 minutes, then strain out the vegetable trimmings. Turn heat to lowest setting and keep stock pot covered.

Warm three tablespoons of butter in a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Toss the fiddleheads with the chopped asparagus and three or four minced cloves of garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté in the butter for about five minutes, until the vegetables are bright and beginning to soften. Remove vegetables from the pot and set aside.

Into the same pot on medium heat, put another three tablespoons of butter with the sliced leeks, shallots, and remaining garlic. Sauté until the leeks are soft, then add the rice. Stir to coat the rice with the butter. Season with salt and pepper. Add the wine and stir, allowing to cook until the wine has cooked off. When dry, add three cups of the water/stock combination. Stir occasionally until the bottom of the pot is dry, then begin adding the remaining stock, half a cup at a time, and stirring occasionally, allowing the stock to cook off completely so the bottom of the pot is dry before adding more stock.

When you've added most of the stock, start tasting the rice for doneness. It should be slightly chewy, but not hard and crumbly in the center. If you run out of stock, add water until you reach the desired level of doneness. If you seem to be running out of stock too quickly, turn the heat down.

When the rice is done, turn off the heat. Add the remaining two tablespoons of butter, Parmesan, and juice from the lemon. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the vegetables. Top with the gremolata. Serve hot.
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