In spring, especially at the farmer’s market, the colors at the market turn from the winter beiges to the vibrant glorious hues of spring. Fresh picked asparagus. Piles of glorious leeks. Fresh peas in a pod waiting to be shelled. You can almost feel the earth vibrating with the arrival of spring. Gone are those root vegetables; the earth unfolds for spring; the new season is here - let it begin!
This risotto is a truly a celebration of spring. Let the season be your guide. Pick whatever spring vegetables are your favorites. Do swap out one veggie for another if these are not your favorite. If the asparagus looks awesome; go for it. Use what you like best. Cook with what the season brings. And if you think you might prefer more spinach than asparagus, that's ok too. Don't stress. Glorious spring is here!
Contrary to what you may think, risotto is not difficult to make. Rice, broth, stir. Yes, you need to stir a bit but not constantly and you can surround yourself with your friends, family, kids as your stir impressively over the pot. Be careful not to overcook the rice as you want the rice to have bite in the middle. The amount of broth you need may vary. You may have a bit of stock leftover. Use it to deglaze a pan later in the week.
This dish is awesome with a poached egg on top for a very easy protein-rich meal. Or serve on its own with some additional freshly grated Parmigiano and a bracing spring white vino with a side of music from the island of Capri perhaps.
Buona primavera, tutti!
Joe and Michele Becci are a brother and sister team who love all things Italian. Together, from opposite coasts, they co-author the blog OurItalianTable.com.
SPRING VEGETABLE RISOTTO
• 6 cups chicken stock, homemade or low-sodium canned
• 1 tablespoon butter
• 6 ounces shitake mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 large leeks, white and pale green parts only
• 3 cloves garlic, chopped
• 2 cups Arborio rice
• 1 cup dry white wine
• 1 pound asparagus
• 10 ounces fresh or frozen peas, defrosted or about 1 ½ cups shelled fresh peas
• 1 small bunch fresh baby spinach, trimmed (about 1 cup)
• Zest from 1 lemon
• 3/4 cup grated Parmigiano or Pecorino (I prefer), plus additional for shaving
• Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring stock to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and keep warm.
2. In the same pot in which you will make the risotto, melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add the shitake mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms are softened, about 5 minutes. Remove the mushrooms to a bowl.
3. Halve the leeks lengthwise and slice crosswise into very thin half moons. Add the olive oil to the same pot and heat over medium heat. Add the sliced leeks and garlic. Cook, stirring often, until the leeks are soft and translucent, about 3 minutes.
4. Add the rice to the pot and stir until each grain is coated. Add in the wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine is absorbed, about 5 minutes.
5. Ladle in about 1/2 cup of the simmering chicken stock and stir often until most of the liquid is absorbed. Continue adding in stock, 1/2 cup at a time and cook over medium heat until each ladle is absorbed before adding more. Cook until the rice is tender but still al dente. (You want the rice to have a bite in the middle.) This should take about 20-30 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, cut the tough ends off the asparagus and slice the stalks diagonally into 1½ inch length pieces. Blanch in boiling salted water and drain. Put in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. If using fresh peas, add them to the same pot for about a minute or two prior to draining.
7. Stir in the mushrooms, asparagus, peas and spinach into the risotto. Add in the lemon zest and cheese. Taste – add in salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
8. Top with additional Parmigiano (or Pecorino), a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a few grinds of pepper.
L’ Italo-Americano, the #1 source for all things Italian since 1908 tells us that if you stand in the middle of Piazza del Campo in Siena early in the morning, you’ll have a strange sensation. Empty and quiet, this perfectly preserved Medieval square and its magnificent gothic buildings seems to transport you back in time to the middle ages.
Siena is a UNESCO heritage site and it doesn’t take you long to see why. The city’s main square, simply called Il Campo by the locals, is an amazing shell-shaped space, flanked by Gothic buildings that have been watching the unfolding centuries through beautiful biforate windows and elegant pointed arches. The undisputed king of these buildings is the Palazzo Pubblico, an awe-inspiring edifice that dominates the square with its slender tower, the second highest in Italy.
The narrow passageways that lead onto Il Campo keep it hidden and protected, like a precious secret. It’s in this square that The Palio, the renowned historical horse race, takes place twice a year. Here ancient rivalries come back to life every summer, when Siena’s contrade, or districts, fiercely compete against each other in this colorful, chaotic event.
The 17 contrade are very much a part of Sienese life. They are examples of local civic pride and devotion to one’s neighborhood in the city. In Medieval times there were nearly 60 of these contrade. It was a way to administrate the city that was growing furiously, and in constant need of troops to fight off its rival Florence. This was Siena’s golden age, between the 13th and 14th centuries. A time when the pilgrim route known as the Via Francigena passed through Siena bringing with it wealth and prosperity.
Today as you walk the steep alleyways and cobbled streets of Siena, you are constantly reminded of the devotion of the Senesi to their contrade. Plaques and flags bearing the various symbols are all around the town, ensuring you always know exactly which contrada you are standing in. The fiery dragon, the cunning owl, the slow but relentless turtle or the exotic giraffe. Each of them has an appropriate motto, and all seem to have come out of a children’s fairy tale.
Speaking of tales, there’s another animal you’ll frequently meet in Siena. It’s the lupa, or she-wolf, the foster mother of Remus and Romulus, the mythical founders of Rome. Legend has it that Siena was founded by Senius and Aschius, the sons of Remus, after their father was murdered by his twin brother Romulus. Supposedly the two brothers fled from the murderous uncle on two horses, one black and one white, and arrived in Etruria, ancient Tuscany, where they founded a city, Siena.
One particularly beautiful lupa is depicted on the Cathedral’s pavement, a magnificent Medieval marble masterpiece that is one of the wonders of Siena. One of the statues stands outside the Duomo, and another more relaxed lupa lets the pigeon drink out of her mouth in the Gaia fountain in Piazza del Campo. The cathedral was dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and is considered one of the most important Romanesque Gothic religious buildings in Italy.
But the city has another beloved church too. One with an intriguing story. The San Domenico Basilica, a church dedicated to one of the patron saints of Italy - Saint Catherine. She used to come to this church to pray and today in a macabre tribute to her, the saint’s head is on display for all to see.
The red brick buildings, the ancient churches, the frescoes. Everywhere you go you see signposts of Siena’s past. A past that’s a fascinating mix of legend, history and tradition. Go. Breathe it in. And leave the 21st century behind.
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.