There was a time right in the beginning when I wasn’t as enamoured of San Francisco. While you stifle shocked gasps, allow me to explain. I arrived here from the bright sunshine and scorching heat of Texas in the month of June. Right away it felt like the world as I knew it had turned topsy-turvy. It was bleak and gray and cold….brrr..warm jacket cold, in summer! My first glimpse of the city was Tenderloin, which as anyone can tell you is an acquired taste, and certainly shouldn’t be the first thing you see in San Francisco. As I shivered in a friend’s tiny studio apartment and wondered where the sun had gone, the weather seemed to mirror the greyness in the soul of my then just graduated jobless self. It was the last recession. Another friend Viral was very surprised to learn that I didn’t like San Francisco right away. Having lived here a couple of years, he already loved it. And as I found a job, stayed here and learned to love it very quickly, his quiet confidence that I’d been mistaken in my first assessment stuck with me.
Viral is at once a charming and easy person to like. He’s an architect who is a study in contrasts. While he loves to meet people, he also enjoys being on his own. While we have a lot in common, like where we grew up, our profession and college, that is one thing I have in common with him that I don’t often have with many people. He’s a good friend and a good guy, kind and helpful. And its been a long year for him too, like it has been for so many of us. So I was thrilled for him when he got a chance to take a vacation in Europe last month. It is fun living vicariously sometimes and couldn’t wait for his stories when he got back. But he did me one better by sending me this charming postcard on my birthday. With his birthday wishes was a brief glimpse at his Italian experience. Gazing at the beautiful Piazza Navone and the fascination of Rome got me thinking about the beautiful country of Italy and invariably, its food. I went through my cookbooks book-marking all kinds of Italian-base recipes. But last night Amey beat me to the punch, by very neatly adapting a risotto recipe from Jamie Oliver’s book.
I love Italian food, but I have to say risotto is not high on my list of favs. Can’t really say what it is exactly. Individually, I’d probably like all the components that make it up. But somehow together they don’t work for me. I love rice but don’t really care for what happens to it in risotto. I love vegetables but they seem to lose a little something of themselves in risotto. There is a good degree of blandness involved all around. And don’t even get me started on the texture. Even so, I can’t stop giving it yet another try, hoping all my unknown issues with it will magically disappear. It’s sort of the same reason I keep returning to the Twilight books, hoping that I will learn to ignore the author’s strange writing style that’s not to my liking, so I can completely love the otherwise enchanting tale. It hasn’t happened yet with the books, but yesterday I finally met a risotto that I can honestly say I loved.
This dish is an intense reminder of blue skies and bright sunshine. The lemon here simply sings and combined with the mint, you can undeniably taste summer.
Asparagus, Mint and Lemon risotto
Adapted from Cook with Jamie by Jamie Oliver. Serves 4.
Arborio rice – 2 cups
Lemons – 2, zest and juice
Onion – 1 medium or 1/2 large, diced
Celery – 2 stalks, diced
Garlic – 3 cloves, smashed
Mint – 2 handfuls of leaves, finely chopped
Asparagus spears – 1 bunch, cut into small pieces
Riesling wine* (or other white wine) – 2 cups (See cook’s notes)
Water (or chicken or veggie stock) – 4 cups
Olive Oil – 2 tbsp
Butter – 3 tbsp
Parmesan cheese – 1/2 cup, grated
Salt and pepper to taste
– In a pan, add half the butter. To this, add the smashed garlic and heat gently.
– Add asparagus and saute till soft. Season well with salt and pepper. Remove the garlic out of the asparagus and keep aside.
– In a large pan, add the oil and saute onion and celery till softened.
– Add the arborio rice and stir in well with the veggies until well-mixed. Fry for 3-4 minutes.
– Add the remaining half of the butter and mix until butter melts.
– Add the wine and stir until the alcohol has evaporated.
– Add the water or stock and salt and pepper. Keeping stirring uniformly until the liquid is mostly absorbed. At this point, it is about three-quarters cooked.
– Add the contents of the pan with the asparagus to the risotto and mix in. Add the zest and juice of the lemons.
– Mix in the mint leaves and half of the Parmesan. Season with more salt, if required.
– Mince the previously sauted garlic and sprinkle over the risotto.
– Cover the pan and move off the heat. Let it rest for a couple of minutes.
Serve with plenty of parmesan grated over it.
A layer of flavour comes from the fresh ingredients, and the nuances I found lacking in risotto before fade away and make this an intensely satisfying dish. Stirring the risotto consistently once the liquid is added and not letting it rest and stick is key to making good risotto. At the three-quarter point, the arborio rice should be able to hold its shape and still be a little al dente, cooking a little bit more through the rest of the process. We used water since there was no stock in the house. Despite water bringing no additional flavour to the dish, we didn’t find it lacking. I’m sure stock of any kind would only elevate the flavours. Amey also significantly dialed down the amount of fat used here to make a leaner risotto. Still, there is no lack in its final creaminess. I guess a little more butter would have lent it a lovely voluptuous tone. I use Riesling because that is one of the very few white wines I like. Jamie Oliver suggests a very dry white wine. I thought it would be better to use what I like rather than follow his lead, and it paid off. I know this is a recipe out of a British chef’s book, but the ingredients are similar enough to believe that it is inspired from something more authentically Italian.
We’ll make this dish again to share with Viral when he returns. It seems indicated somehow. He had shared the shepherd’s pie with me and then bravely tackled a beef version of his own, which I’m sure tasted great. He’s good at stepping out and trying different things, like the more involved cooking in this case. I’d love to cook this dish for him and have him try out a variation for himself. As for now, I await the stories from Italy and the rest of his European stint and all the chocolate I made him promise to bring from Switzerland.