Russell Norman’s seasonal asparagus and girolle risotto
Asparagus and girolle risotto.
Serves four Ingredients
• 8 slender English asparagus spears, woody ends discarded
• 150g girolles, dusted but not washed
• 2 medium onions, peeled and finely diced
• 1 small celery stalk, peeled and finely diced
• 1.2 litres vegetable stock, hot
• 350g carnaroli rice
• A glass of dry vermouth
• Extra virgin olive oil
• 75g unsalted butter
• 120g Parmesan, grated
• Small palmful thyme leaves, picked
• Large pinch flat parsley leaves, chopped
• Flaky sea salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
① Heat the stock in a large saucepan and keep it simmering. Put a couple of glugs of olive oil in a separate large, heavy-based saucepan and place over a low heat. Sauté the onions and celery with a good pinch of salt. Continue for 10mins, until they take on a glossy, translucent appearance.
② Add the rice and mix to coat each grain. Turn up the heat a little and add the vermouth.
③ Add a ladleful of hot stock and gently stir. Continue to do so slowly and gently, making sure the mixture never absorbs all the liquid and is always very slightly submerged. Add more stock, little by little, and repeat for the next 10mins.
④ Meanwhile, cut the asparagus into
3cm pieces. Mix into the risotto and stir gently for 5mins, slowly adding stock as necessary. Add the girolles and thyme. Stir well, but carefully so as not to crush the mushrooms, cook for another 5mins or so, then test the rice for doneness. It should have a little resistance between your teeth but should not be hard. Remove from the heat.
⑤ Add the butter and Parmesan, folding them carefully into the risotto until absorbed. Serve on warm plates with the parsley and a light twist of black pepper.
“Asparagus inspires gentle thoughts,” wrote Charles Lamb in the 19th century. When I moved last year to a dilapidated farmhouse in Kent, I had visions of living the rural idyll in which I pictured haystacks, sunshine, cider and
Morris dancing. The reality is, of course, very different.
Firstly, I didn’t realise there would be such a spectacular amount of mud. It is absolutely everywhere. Even a short trip to the village to get half a dozen duck eggs or some home-made fudge can result in the sort of mud bath you’d expect on the battlefields of Ypres, or a weekend at Glastonbury. Ours isn’t the sort of house where shoes are removed at the door, so a day of modest outdoor activity can result, come evening, in quite an alarming carpet of beastly oomska over pretty much everything.
Secondly, with a great garden comes great responsibility. Having the space to cultivate vegetables, something I have hankered after all my adult life, means I have had to finally put my money where my mouth is and grow some (ahem). This is no mean task. I remember looking fondly at packets of seeds in garden centres and thinking how easy it must be to pop them into the soil, watch them sprout, and harvest the bounty a few months later. Not a chance. No one tells you about weeding, turning, composting, putting little trays in the greenhouse for a month, choosing the right location, planting at the right time, pest control, netting... It’s exhausting and seems to have turned me, by stealth, into my grandfather.
This is a busy time of the year for us gardeners. Spring is where the hard work is done and my biggest challenge, one that won’t bear fruit, so to speak, for another year, is asparagus.
Quintessentially English, unmistakably seasonal, asparagus is tricky to grow.
You have to put year-old dormant plants (known as crowns) into deep trenches surrounded by ripe manure, tend them through the spring with fish, blood and bone, protect them with fences while they grow and then mollycoddle them in the winter with a blanket. And they don’t like slugs, snails, beetles or frost.
I’ll let you know how my home crop has fared this time next year. Meanwhile, thank heavens for Cobrey Farms in Herefordshire where Wye Valley asparagus is always available early in spring. I first made this month’s recipe when living in Venice last year. It was a 14-month, self-imposed exile, researching and cooking for my new book.
While buying some beautifully slender asparagus from Rialto Market (grown on the nearby island of Sant’Erasmo) the grocer Paolo suggested I took some girolle mushrooms, fresh from the woody mainland, and made a risotto. The result was stunning: earthy, robust and fragrant, the delicate mushrooms proving perfect bedfellows to asparagus. If you struggle to find early girolles, this risotto works wonderfully with St George’s mushrooms, also called mousserons, and usually on UK market stalls in April.
Russell Norman’s new cookbook Venice: Four Seasons of Home Cooking (Penguin Fig Tree) is out now