Sunday, February 26, 2012

All that waiting

I feel happiest when I'm in the kitchen. Even when things get chaotic and rushed, even when I'm trying to do ten things at once and timers are beeping at me, I still feel at peace in that tiny space of ours. It seems as though it's the most natural place to be, at 6:30 pm on a weekday, standing among the whisks and spoons, the pots and the pans and the cupboards filled with good things I have yet to get my paws on. Even the least glamorous of tasks -- say, the stirring of risotto over a hot stove -- are sometimes my favorite parts. To me, it can be decidedly meditative, all that stirring, all that waiting.

Springtime officially begins in a few weeks, and all I want to do is cook. That, and pore over cookbooks, daydreaming about my next project. I do have a new method-to-my-madness, shall we way, which is to accumulate a good amount of fresh produce and pantry items and see what I can come up with in a matter of hours. I know this is what my mother has been doing for her entire life, and what chefs do everyday, but it's a rather new concept for me. While it's true that during farmer's market season I do do some 'random' purchasing, it always scares me a bit. I have to admit, though, it's extremely satisfying, in a much different way then simply gathering ingredients for a previously chosen recipe.

So when my mom came home with a bundle of asparagus the other day, I remembered a Ina Garten recipe I had filed away awhile back for a 'Spring Green Risotto.' I got inspired. It sounded like the perfect dish for the interim between winter and spring, when it's looks so tempting outside but in fact it's still quite blustery and cold. Luckily, we had most of ingredients already in the house, including Arborio rice, as well as the usual risotto suspects like Parmesan and dry white wine.

Usually when I find myself with some asparagus, I want to highlight it in some way, so it's really the star of the plate, like in this, or this. But since it isn't actually asparagus season yet and what we're getting now is probably from somewhere south of the border, risotto seemed like a good use for it. Since it's studded with bits of green it's not too heavy, and it has a warming quality you look for in late February. Yes, it does require some focused stirring, as mentioned before, but it's rather fun, once you get the hang of it. All that waiting builds excitement, the same anticipation that comes in the days just before March begins, with pink blossoms and much-needed rain. It doesn't have to be boring. The rice gets thirsty every few minutes so you have to calm it down with ladlefuls of chicken stock, and then watch it slowly absorb the liquid. Believe me, it's fascinating stuff! I do like the seasonal additions of leeks and peas (albeit frozen) here, too. Ina is an ardent lemon lover like me so she calls for both the juice and the zest of the fruit, which I also love. I did omit the fennel because I'm not sure I like cooked fennel. I left out the mascarpone too, and I cut the salt in half, which I routinely do with all of Ina's recipes now. I adore her, but she is a salt fanatic

Unfortunately for me, my stomach is having none of this cooking-frenzy business. I cannot even begin to tell you all the things I've been making lately, it would make your head spin (short ribs(!), more cookies(!), pad thai(!), citrus marmalade(!) baked oatmeal(!) - see what I mean?!)* For some reason I can only handle very small meals lately, and though I've been craving rich foods, I can only take them in small doses. This (coupled with the fact that I live in just a two-person household) makes the probability of leftovers quite high, so I've been learning to at least tolerate their existence. I even made risotto cakes last night, and I was grateful to have them. Plus, let's face it, I was worn out, and I wanted to get back to my writing, another thing that makes me happy. Crusty outsides, creamy insides, it was comfort food, Italian-style. Hmmm. Pretty classy for a hum-drum Saturday night, I must say. 

Spring Green Risotto
Adapted from Ina Garten

1 1/2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 Tablespoons butter
2 leeks, washed and thinly sliced (about 3 cups)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
2/3 cups dry white wine
4-5 cups chicken stock, warmed
1 bunch asparagus, chopped into 1 1/4 inch lengths
10 oz frozen peas
1 tablespoon lemon zest (about one large lemon)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped chives or green onion tops

Blanch the asparagus in boiling, salted water until tender, about 4 minutes. Plunge into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain and set aside. 

Heat oil and butter in a medium to large heavy-duty saucepan over medium heat. Once hot, add leeks and toss to coat. Cook for about 5-7 minutes, or until tender. Add rice and toss to coat for one minute. Pour in the wine and stir until absorbed. 

Add 2 ladlefuls of warm stock and then stir risotto until it is almost dry. Continue adding stock in this manner until rice is al dente, stirring almost constantly with a flat-bottomed wooden spoon - this usually takes 15-20 minutes. Add asparagus, peas, zest, salt and pepper and cook until rice is done, tasting often. It should be very creamy. Add parmesan, lemon juice and chives, cover, and let stand a minute or two. Serve immediately with extra parmesan. 

Serves 6, generously.

* Check out of my Flickr page for a glimpse of some of these projects. I'm particularly fond of a series I took with some tangerines in a brown paper bag. Afternoon light with an orangey glow, caught in a paper sack. Do take a look. 

A couple more things to check out: 
- I love listening to the Joy the Baker Podcast every week. It's not just about food, it has some 'real life' talk too, as they would put it. 
- I'm obsessed with this picture. So gorgeous.