Spring Vegetable Risotto
In my many musings about the seasons, I’ve often expressed how spring and autumn have so many things in common — more than they ought since they essentially head in two opposite directions. Autumn gives way to winter, a time of dormancy and quiet while spring gives way to the boisterous green frenzy of summer. What they have most in common, I think, is the sneakiness of their arrival (usually a snail’s pace) and the hastiness of their departure. Like the rapidly departing beauty of autumn’s leaves and the remnants of the year’s harvest, spring’s vivid flowers and tender blossoms are usually gone within a week or two.
Thankfully, the cherry and apple blossoms were given their time to shine, this spring (unlike last spring). James and I — for the first time ever — were able to take a drive out into the county to witness the orchards being transformed into billowy, cloud-like clusters of fragrant blooms floating over green meadows blanketed with patches of sparkling yellow dandelions. It’s official: we will compare all future springs to this one!
The orchards were not the only fragrant and flowery places surrounding us. Our own woods were overflowing with graceful trillium, trout lilies, and dutchman’s breeches. This spring, we spent a little more time than usual in our woods. Rather than soaking in the quiet and peacefulness, though, we were also seeking some special, spring culinary delights: ramps and morels. It turned out to be a perfect season for both, and we were ever so delighted with the bounty just beyond our doorstep. With some cloth bags, a paring knife, a trowel, a pitchfork, and our favorite feline escort, we headed off into our woods to forage for these special spring treats.
Morels, with their dark, earthy taste, are a prized find in the woods, and take quite a bit of practice to spot and confidently identify. So treasured and unique are their taste, most recipes for them have only a few ingredients — nothing is added that would take away from the mushrooms themselves.
Meanwhile, ramps (some folks call them wild leeks) tend to be more abundant and lend themselves to a wider variety of uses in the kitchen. They are becoming more and more popular — so popular that foragers are warned not to over harvest them. Harvesting is pretty easy. Using a trowel, spade, or pitchfork, you dig around the base of a group of ramps, loosen the soil, and then they just pop right out. You should always leave at least half of the ramps behind, never harvesting an entire group. This way, you’ll be sure to have more to harvest next spring. From there, preparing them to use in recipes is exactly like preparing scallions: remove any thick/dirty skin from the bulb portion, discard any damaged greens, trim off the root ends, and wash thoroughly to remove sand and grit.
Whether eaten raw or cooked, their taste is somewhere between leek and garlic with just a hint of spiciness (or you might say wildness). Like scallions and leeks, their white, bulbous bottoms have the most concentrated flavor, but the greens of ramps are also mildly oniony, taking on spinach-like taste and texture when cooked. So, unlike leeks, ramps are pretty much a zero-waste vegetable.
One of our favorite uses for ramps is to simply chop about 1/2 cup each of the greens and the bulbs and then stir them into an 8-ounce block of softened neufchatel or cream cheese (no need for added salt or any other seasonings). Put this mixture in a covered container and let the flavors meld overnight and you have an excellent filling for omelets, the perfect schmear on an English muffin or bagel… the possibilities are endless!
With such a glorious spring underway, before all the ramps had faded and disappeared beneath the canopy, we were able to pair them with another spring treat: locally-grown asparagus.
Method to the Madness
The secret to getting all the flavor possible from both the asparagus and the ramps is hidden inside the vegetable stock. Rather than discarding the tough ends of the asparagus and the plentiful greens of the ramps, they’re simmered into the vegetable broth, extracting tons of flavor while enabling you to not overcook the rest of the vegetables used in the risotto.
Though it involves a lot of stirring, risotto is one of the easiest “fancy” dishes you could ever put on your table. If cooking rice is usually something that intimidates you, your worries are over — it’s nearly impossible to mess this up! The key is to cook only over medium heat (too hot, and you might scorch the bottom), and add only a little stock at a time after the initial large amount is cooked away.
Cooks will always disagree on the ideal texture for risotto — be it soupy or stiff. So, I’ll not pretend to have a definitive answer. We prefer it to be somewhere in between soupy and stiff — soupy enough that you get the creaminess of the arborio rice and melted Parmesan in every bite, but stiff enough that each grain of rice has just the eensiest bit of texture to it. The beauty of risotto is it can easily be adjusted to your personal preferences for consistency by adding a bit more stock or cooking just a bit longer until the stock is absorbed.
Spring Vegetable Risotto
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Light & Healthy
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley (stems reserved)
2 tablespoons minced fresh mint (stems reserved)
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 pound asparagus (tough ends trimmed and reserved)
1 pound ramps or leeks, greens reserved, remaining parts sliced thinly
4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
3 cups water
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
To make the gremolata: Combine the minced parsley, mint, olive oil, and lemon zest in a small bowl; set aside.
To make the vegetable stock: Chop the tough asparagus ends and ramp greens coarsely. Bring the asparagus ends, ramp greens, vegetable broth, and water to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the stock through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium bowl, pressing the solids with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. Return the stock to the saucepan, cover, and set over low heat to keep warm.
To make the risotto: Slice the asparagus spears diagonally into 1/2-inch pieces. Heat 2 teaspoons of the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the asparagus spears, 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp-tender (4-6 minutes). Add the peas; cook until heated through (about 1 minute). Transfer the vegetable mixture to a plate; set aside.
Combine the remaining teaspoon of olive oil, sliced ramps, 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper in the Dutch oven; cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened (4-8 minutes). Uncover and increase the heat to medium. Stir in the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the ends of the kernels are transparent (2-3 minutes). Stir in the wine and cook until it has been completely absorbed.
Stir in 3 cups of the hot vegetable stock and continue simmering, stirring about once a minute, until the stock is absorbed and the bottom of the pan is almost dry (about 12 minutes). Stir in 1/2 cup more vegetable stock every few minutes as needed to keep the pan bottom from drying out and until the rice is al dente (10-12 minutes). You may have up to 1 1/2 cups of vegetable stock left over.
Off the heat, stir in the cheese, butter, lemon juice, and a large pinch of the prepared gremolata; gently fold in the vegetable mixture. Serve immediately, sprinkling each portion with the remaining gremolata.
This risotto is rich and creamy enough to be a stand-alone dinner dish, but it’s actually quite light and healthful — especially with the hefty dose of spring vegetables. It’s probably one of the simplest ways to get a bold taste of the brief season of spring on your dinner plate.