A few weeks back I took out a second mortgage to purchase a tiny bundle of early season white asparagus in the UK. The following week I stole some time on yet another busy business trip to stroll around Marché St Quentin near Gare Du Nord in Paris. I was desperate to smuggle some of the amazing (and much cheaper) white asparagus back on Eurostar. But I wasn’t travelling back for a few days yet and my hotel room had no fridge (read “minibar).
How blessed was I that logistics worked out better this week and I was able to grab a couple of bunches right at closing time. I literally hand-picked my asparagus from a crate right at the back and right at the bottom of the pile of crates in a lift (sods law, right?), as they were already moving the produce out and had actually officially closed. Phew!
Ok, so I adore the classic combo of asparagus with hollandaise sauce and perhaps some good ham. The Germans and the lowlands have built an empire on just such simplicity during the brief asparagus season (“Spargelzeit”). But there is so much more you can do. White gold, they call it. And for good reason.
So why not pair it with other gold and sheer luxury. Such as golden saffron, the most expensive spice on earth. I’m also opting for exquisite North Sea brown shrimp (It’s a Belgian youth thing). These tiny flavour bombs pair beautifully with the delicate asparagus and rich risotto. They’re hard to come by in England though and may require a windfall to afford. So you could use a larger prawn if you prefer.
The gothic risotto is flavoured with squid ink and a rich lobster stock. You could use any good shellfish stock or even a chicken stock. It’s delicious served alongside a nice piece of fish when asparagus are out of season.
You could leave out the squid ink, but then where’s the drama or fun in that?
Mind you, you could then make a vegetarian variation by using a well-flavoured vegetable stock, and swapping the shrimp for a confit egg yolk, a frilly fried egg, or a poached egg. For vegans and the dairy-free, do as the vegetarians do, but add extra asparagus or leafy greens and forget the egg and butter. Use a vegan cream alternative in the sauce. Obviously.
Do scroll down for the bonus arty-farty picture at the bottom…
White Asparagus on Black Risotto with Prawns and Lemon Saffron Sauce (serves 4 – GF)
TIP: add the squid ink nice and early, so that it deeply penetrates into the rice as it cooks for a fuller flavour and perfect dramatic effect. You can freeze leftover squid ink in ice cube trays for some months.
You can prepare the asparagus and the sauce in advance and gently reheat for serving. The shrimp don’t really need re-heating. You can if you prefer, but they are already cooked and serving them at room temperature actually adds a nice little contrast detail.
For the Asparagus and sauce
1.2 kg white or green asparagus
150 ml white wine
80 ml vermouth, pastis or more white wine
Enough cold water to cover
juice of half a lemon
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tbsp butter
a good pinch of saffron stems, soaked in 1 tbsp of water
1-2 tbsp double cream, whipping cream or creme fraiche
a pinch of ground white pepper
a few snipped chives or a little finely chopped fresh parsley (optional)
For the Risotto:
500 gr risotto rice
1 banana shallot
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or crushed
120 ml white wine
80 ml vermouth, pastis or more white wine
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp squid ink (optional, from a sachet or jar)
Break the woody part off the bottom of each asparagus by bending the bottom half. It will naturally snap where it should snap. Set aside the snapped off woody ends. If using white asparagus, peel away the tough outers from just under the heads all the way to the bottom and all around each spear with a vegetable peeler. If using green asparagus, peeling is optional, as their skins are not as woody and bitter as the white ones.
Keep them in cold water with the lemon juice until you need them.
Heat the stock for the risotto and keep warm on a low heat next to where you will prepare the risotto.
Heat the oil in a heavy-based casserole. Add the shallot and sauté for a few mins until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for another min or so without browning. Add the rice and toss to coat in the oil. Wait for the “sigh” that will tell you the rice is ready for its drowning. Lightly season and add half the wine.
Let the wine evaporate while stirring occasionally. Do the same with the rest of the wine and vermouth or pastis if using).
Stir the squid ink through the rice. Then add ladle by ladle of the hot stock, allowing the liquid to be absorbed by the rice in between ladles, stirring often, until all the liquid is used and absorbed and the rice is tender but with a little bite remaining. You may need more or less liquid depending on the rice and heat. You’re looking for a risotto that is slightly flowing, and not stiff or solid.
Meanwhile, add the asparagus together with their soaking water, the woody ends and the wine for the asparagus to a wide shallow pan. Add the salt, sugar and butter, and top with enough water so the asparagus are covered. Season and poach the asparagus until tender (10-15 mins depending on thickness. Strain, discard the woody ends and keep the asparagus warm.
Heat the strained liquid into a small saucepan and allow to reduce by at least half if not more.
When the risotto is done, turn off the heat and check the seasoning. Allow to rest, covered, for a min or 2.
While the risotto is resting, add the saffron and soaking liquid to the sauce. Stir through, reduce for another few minutes and turn off the heat.
Beat the butter vigorously through the risotto. Cover again while you finish the sauce. Stir the cream and herbs through the sauce. Check the seasoning of both the risotto and the sauce.
To serve: Divide the risotto over 4 plates. Top each plate with 3-5 asparagus and a scattering of prawns (if using, else fish, a confit egg yolk or poached egg) Pour a little saffron sauce around the risotto and sprinkle over some extra herbs. Hand any extra sauce round separately.
Gently reheat the risotto over a low heat on the hob, adding spoonfuls of stock or hot water every few minutes and stirring often. Serve with a poached or fried egg for a quick and satisfying lunch.
Else top with simply grilled or pan-fried fish and a little leftover sauce, shrimp and herbs.
Don’t worry if you don’t have any leftover risotto. Just serve on some wilted leafy greens or with a salad side.
Bonus arty-farty picture. Not quite monochrome
I could have licked the plate, but I didn’t. Sun streaming in through the blinds. Bliss.