Spring is almost in the air, but it’s what’s in the ground at area farms that promises a fresh start on the plates of local cooks. As we wait patiently for our beloved strawberries to ripen to plump red perfection, there are plenty of veggies popping up at local farm stands ideal for savory dishes that are easy to make and even easier to enjoy.
Among them are beautiful beets, begging to be roasted and placed atop a bed of magnificent greens, still leafy and delicious while the weather remains cool around the region. There’s better-than-store-bought broccoli bursting with florets of green and purple and just right for family-friendly meals and snacks.
But, perhaps nothing says spring in Coastal Virginia gardens more than asparagus and peas in all their verdant glory. Asparagus spears begin ripening to ready-to-pick perfection in April, while aptly named May peas, also known as English peas, arrive slightly later. Meet them in the middle, and you’ve got a seasonal marriage made in heaven for a variety of classic and creative dishes.
We opted for a classic here from local cooking instructor Jacqui Renager, who brings us a springy risotto, that infinitely adaptable Italian comfort food staple made from short grain white rice, with asparagus and peas as the star ingredients. While fresh is always best, opt for frozen peas if fresh aren’t available, and look for asparagus that are firm to the touch with the tips intact.
Risotto does require a bit of patience to prepare, Renager says, but don’t let that intimidate. It’s all about slowly and gradually adding the liquid—in this case, a chicken or vegetable sock—to the rice. Using a thick cast-aluminum or cast-iron pan is a great choice, she notes, to promote even heating. You can also try using a heat diffuser, an inexpensive flat, metal gadget that can be placed under any existing pan to achieve the same effect.
While other types of rice should be rinsed before cooking, with risotto you want to avoid rinsing because it is the starches on the rice that create the creamy texture of the finished dish. Blanching the delicate veggies and shocking them in an ice bath is also important to make sure they are just crisp-tender and not overcooked when served.
To add another component of flavor, you could use rendered bacon fat in place of olive oil to cook the onions and rice. Because, let’s face it, everything is better with bacon. Pick some up from Virginia Beach’s own Cartwright Family Farms.
Finally, we asked Josh Fisher of Yianni’s Wine and Food in Virginia Beach for a local pairing recommendation and he suggested Williamsburg Winery’s 2019 Wessex Hundred Albarino with its “citrus notes and a bit of salinity to bring out some zest” as a bright, clean complement to this dish. Pick up a bottle at Yianni’s or learn more at YiannisWine.com.
Spring Pea and Asparagus Risotto
Recipe by Jacqui Renager of Fun in the Kitchen with Jacqui | CookingwithJacqui.com
1 bunch asparagus spears, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup red onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ cups arborio rice
1 ½ teaspoon salt, divided
1 cup dry white wine
1 ½ cup finely shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
1 tablespoon coarse ground pepper (freshly ground is preferred)
Have a bowl of ice water ready as an ice bath for the vegetables before you blanch them. In large stockpot, bring 5 cups of water to boil. Add 1 teaspoon salt. Add peas and asparagus pieces. Blanch for 3-4 minutes. Drain vegetables through a colander and immediately transfer to the ice bath. Once cool, drain again and set aside.
Bring broth to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low to keep it hot but not simmering. Heat oil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds. Add rice and remaining salt (½ teaspoon) and stir to combine.
To the rice, add ½ cup of the hot broth and ¼ cup of wine into the rice. Cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue to cook on medium-low, adding broth in ½-cup increments followed by wine (until the wine is gone), and stirring frequently after each addition, until most of the liquid is absorbed.
On the last addition, add your blanched peas and asparagus to allow it to warm up to the temperature of the risotto. The risotto is done when you’ve used all the broth and wine and the rice is creamy and al dente. Takes some patience. Don’t turn the heat up to rush it; you’ll be glad you waited!
Remove from the heat; stir in 1 of cup the cheese and pepper. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top of individual servings.