Often, people believe making risotto is a chore. But I find it is not much more work than making a pasta dinner with a vegetable sauce or with shellfish. It takes about the same time and you must pay attention to what you are cooking. Regardless of your perspective, risotto is a meal worth having in your dinner repertoire. This recipe is inspired by Spring, using seasonal produce with the bright zing of lemon and mint. Leek asparagus risotto with sugar snap peas is pure comfort food. It is a blend of rice made creamy from stock and stirring, with a bounty of spring vegetables separately cooked to retain their crisp bite and shape.
What is great about risotto, once you have the basic recipe down, the possibilities are endless. Anything goes. It is a great way to use up odds and end vegetables or leftover fish, chicken and cured pork. Any vegetable pairs nicely with the creamy rice. I like to add a lot of vegetables because I feel it is healthier for me. But many recipes include only just a cup of peas or no vegetables at all, like Risotto alla Milanese, which is the risotto that put risotto on the map. It is only made with the rice, stock, Parmigiano-Reggiano, butter, and saffron.
When I make risotto, I have my music playing in the background or I have the pleasure of a friend sharing relaxed conversation with a glass of wine. It is also a time for meditation, especially if it has been one of those days and you need some quite time. Whatever the mood, you should never feel rushed or stressed when making risotto, you will just end up making mediocre risotto. This just can’t be rushed and defeats the purpose of making a comforting meal.
Variations for Leek Asparagus Risotto
If you want to give leek asparagus risotto an upgrade either for a fancy dinner or for a romantic dinner for two, add some seared sea scallops on top of the plated risotto. If you do not know how to sear sea scallops, click on this link for Dinner Salad with Sea Scallops and Greens for instructions. Brown some butter after searing the sea scallops and drizzle it over the scallops and leek asparagus risotto with a squeeze of lemon. It is a great dinner for a couple to make together. Each person has a job. One can stir the risotto, the other can keep you company and sear the scallops and brown the butter at the last minute.
The dinner salad is a great alternative to risotto when the weather gets hot and humid and you don’t want to stand over a hot stove.
Read more tips on making risotto here.
Leek Asparagus Risotto
A springtime risotto made with leeks, asparagus and sugar snap peas. For a romantic dinner for two, add some seared sea scallops.
When I use a store-bought stock, I like to enhance it by adding fresh vegetable trimmings and simmer for several minutes. This adds some time to your prep, but it does add more flavor to the stock. If you are pressed for time omit this step and save 15 minutes but remember to heat up the stock before adding it to the risotto.
I prepare the asparagus and sugar snap peas separately. This helps the vegetables retain their shape and color. I like the vegetables on the crisp side which is a nice contrast to the smooth and creamy rice.
Leek Asparagus Risotto
- 6 cups (1.5 L) vegetable or chicken stock homemade or low salt store bought stock
- 1 lb (414 g) asparagus
- 1 leeks cleaned and sliced
- 4 oz (119 g) sugar snap peas a heaping cup
- 4 TBS (57 g) butter divided
- 1½ cup (300 g) carnaroli or arborio rice
- ½ cup (150 ml) dry white wine
- ½ tsp Kosher Salt (more to taste)
- ½ cup (50 g) grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- finely grated zest from one lemon
- garnish with mint and parsley
- Freshly ground black pepper
Preparing the stock and vegetables
Clean and remove the dark leaves off the leek. To clean leek, cut off the root end and slice down the middle of the leek lengthwise but not all the way through. Open the leek like a book and run it under cold running water. Peel back the layers looking for the hidden dirt and rinse off. The dirt likes to hide between the layers of the leek almost all the way through to the center. Dry off the leeks as best you can.
Trim off the dark green layers of the leek and reserve for the stock, then slice in half all the way through lengthwise. Slice the leek in half moon slices about a 1/8 inch (.5 cm) thick and set aside.
Pour the stock into a 3-quart sauce pan and turn the heat to medium-high. Trim off the ends of the asparagus and add the ends to the stock. Add the cleaned dark green parts of your leek. Add a small handful of sugar snap peas to the stock.
Bring the stock to a simmer. Simmer the stock with the vegetables for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and remove the vegetables with a spider or slotted spoon. Discard the vegetables. Return the stock to the burner set to low heat and keep warm.
Fill a sauce pan with salted water and bring to a boil.
While the water is coming to a boil, trim the asparagus into one-inch (2.5 cm) pieces cut on a diagonal. Start by trimming off the top tip just where it begins to get smooth, then work your way down the stalk.
Remove the string from the side of the sugar snap peas and trim each end if needed. Also, while the water is coming to a boil, make a water bath by adding cold water and ice cubes to a medium bowl.
Once the water comes to a boil, add a pinch of Kosher salt then add the trimmed asparagus. Quickly blanch for 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon or spider to remove the asparagus from the boiling water then add to the ice water bath to stop the cooking. Keep the water on and boiling. When the asparagus is cooled remove them from the ice bath and dry on a clean lint free kitchen towel. Set aside. Add more ice to the ice bath for the sugar snap peas.
In the same pot of boiling water, quickly blanch the sugar snap peas for one minute. Remove the sugar snap peas from the boiling water and add to an ice bath. Once cool, drain and dry the sugar snap peas. Cut the sugar snap peas in quarter inch slices on a sharp diagonal. Set aside.
Making the risotto
In a Dutch oven or other 5-qt pot, add 2 TB of butter over medium heat. Once the butter stops sizzling add the leeks and cook until the leeks become translucent and tender, but not browned, about 5-7 minutes.
Add the carnaroli rice and stir to coat. Cook the rice until they become opaque about 2-3 minutes. Pour in the white wine and stir until the wine completely evaporates.
Add about a 1/2 cup (150 ml) of warm stock and stir the rice until it has absorbed the stock. Add the Kosher salt and continue to add warm stock in 1/2 cup (150 ml) intervals, stirring the rice and waiting until the stock is all absorbed until you add more. Continue adding stock and stirring until the risotto is al dente, about 20-30 minutes. After 15 minutes of cooking, taste the rice to gauge your progress. The rice should be tender but still firm. You might not use up all the stock.
Towards the end, add the asparagus and sliced sugar snap peas to warm up. Add the remaining butter and the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese with a 1/2 cup of stock. Stir to mix and melt the cheese.
Loosen up the risotto with some warm stock and stir if it needs it.
Spoon a serving into a shallow bowl or plate, and garnish with lemon zest, parsley and mint.
Serve immediately with more cheese and fresh black pepper.
Depending on how salty your stock is, will determine how much Kosher salt you need to add. I always use low salt or homemade stock, which gives me some flexibility for seasoning my food. Taste first and season with salt as needed.
For a really special treat, sear sea scallops separately and serve 3-5 scallops person. Arrange the sea scallops on top of the risotto in individual serving dishes. Brown some butter and drizzle over the sea scallops on the risotto. Garnish with herbs and lemon zest.
© 2018, Ginger Smith- Lemon Thyme and Ginger. All rights reserved.
Now that it is officially spring, we can look forward to young spring asparagus. These odd looking green spears push through the thawed ground just in time to dissolve away the winter blues. The early spring asparagus spears are tender and often thin, needing little in the way of preparation and adornment. I found the simpler the better for these young spears. If you grow your own asparagus, then you know how sweet and fresh the first spears taste. My friend grows asparagus and eats the first spring spears raw because they are that delicious and tender.
I am not as fortunate as my friend, so I rely on the store and farmer’s market for my spring asparagus. From the farmers market they are slightly older than just picked, however at the grocery they are much older. When buying asparagus look for spears with tight tips and smooth skin. As they get older, the tips open and look like they are about to sprout. If you have the room, stand the asparagus spears, loosely packed and upright standing in a container with a shallow layer of water. If not, untie the bundle and let them rest loose in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator.
How to Prepare Spring Asparagus
The best preparation is to cut off the woody end about 2 inches (5 cm) from the bottom. Though, how much actually depends on how old the asparagus was when harvested. I used to bend the asparagus in half and let the spears break where the woody core ended, and the fresh stalk began. Often, I felt there was a lot of waste using the bend and break technique, so I started cutting them and gauging for myself. If the asparagus spears are older, you may need to trim off a longer piece. You can feel with your fingertips where the tender part and the woody part meet.
As the season progresses, and with fatter asparagus spears, the stalks become fibrous making the outer skin stringy and hard to bite. I peel a thin layer, using a vegetable peeler, off the skin from the bottom to about an inch or two below the tip. You can peel the asparagus if you want a fancy dressed-up presentation as well. Early in the season, and with thin asparagus spears, you won’t need to peel the spears, only if you want to. Check out my recipe for Asparagus with Orange Mayonnaise how to peel asparagus spears. You can also use the orange mayonnaise with this recipe as well.
Click on this link for nutritional benefits of asparagus.
How to Cook Asparagus
This stove top grilling method produces asparagus the whole family will enjoy. It never ceases to amaze me how this cooking technique turned our sons’ heads and hearts and they began eating their asparagus. Needless to say, we started cooking asparagus using our grill pan all the time after that. No complaints, no “Eat your vegetables,” conversations at the dinner table. Life was good. Before the grill pan method, I would quickly blanch asparagus, then season with butter or olive oil. It produces great asparagus, but it wasn’t everyone’s favorite.
To make stove top grilled asparagus, all you need is a grill pan or skillet, some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or sherry vinegar, Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. My grill pan does not accommodate a full pound (466 g) of asparagus, so I cooked them in two batches. A larger 12-inch (30 cm) skillet might hold a pound (466 g). As the asparagus cooks in the pan, the heat gently chars the asparagus in spots creating extra flavor. You do not get the smokiness of the outdoor grill, but there is just enough sear for extra oomph.
More asparagus recipes
Early Spring Asparagus
Early spring asparagus is tender and sweet and does not need a lot of extra adornment for the flavor to shine. This is a simple preparation using a grill pan or skillet and nothing more than olive oil, salt and pepper, with or without balsamic vinegar and fresh herbs.
Herbs like basil, tarragon, thyme, chives or arugula flowers taste delicious with asparagus. Fresh lemon or orange zest. You can also garnish with chopped walnuts and/or a diced hard-boiled egg.
- 1 lb (466 g) fresh asparagus
- 1 TB extra virgin olive oil
- pinch of Kosher Salt less than half teaspoon
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tsp balsamic vinegar optional
Place a grill pan or heavy-duty skillet on the stove set to medium-high heat. Let the pan heat up. Place you hand about 6 inches (15 cm) above the pan. If the heat is starting to feel hot and uncomfortable then your pan is ready, about 4 minutes. It should not be smoking hot.
While waiting for the pan to heat up, Using a sharp knife, trim off the woody end of the spear, about 2 inches (5 cm). Place the spears in a bowl.
Drizzle the spears with extra virgin olive oil, and add pinch of kosher salt and black pepper. Toss to evenly coat.
Arrange the spears in one row across the grill pan or skillet. You won't fit the whole pound (466 g), but add as much as you can fit in a single layer. Allow the spears to cook undisturbed for a few minutes, then turn them over on the other side. Cook undisturbed for a couple of minutes more and turn again. Keep cooking and turning until the asparagus spears are just tender when pierced with a fork but still has some bite.
Turn off the heat and sprinkle some balsamic vinegar or sherry vinegar over the asparagus spears and turn over a few times to coat.
© 2018, Ginger Smith- Lemon Thyme and Ginger. All rights reserved.
It is funny how one little pasta dinner is the cause of serious debate and unfavorable opinions. After all, pasta primavera simply is pasta prepared with delicately cooked vegetables. What is so serious about that? Well, Pasta Primavera’s origin for one, and its popularity for another.
A Brief History of Pasta Primavera
This pasta specialty is not of Italian origin, but is a 1975 American creation either at Le Cirque in NY City, or in Nova Scotia with a Le Cirque chef/owner connection, (Wikipedia). The recipe’s fame started at Le Cirque where customers could special order the meal because it was not on the menu. Amanda Hesser’s 2009 article in the NY Times, states Jean Vergens, then chef at Le Cirque, hated the dish so much he refused to allow Pasta Primavera cooked in Le Cirque’s kitchen. In order to satisfy their costumers, the staff had to cook the dish in the hallway.
What is not of debate is, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey’s article about Le Cirque’s recipe in the New York Times, made Pasta Primavera famous. Unfortunately, the fame of pasta primavera help create its’ loss of appeal. Across America, Italian American restaurants served Pasta Primavera. This crossover from a secret meal specially prepared, to mainstream America changed its identity. How can pasta with vegetables taste bad? It can when mediocre restaurants take over the pasta primavera market, (Hesser, A. New York Times 2009). Unfortunately, a meal created using French and Italian cooking techniques, became ordinary in the mass production.
Pasta Primavera Done Right
I like my pasta dishes with an abundance of extra ingredients mixed with some pasta, not the other way around. Depending on the recipe, pasta is a foundation for vegetables and sauces to stand out. Preparing pasta with good technique and consideration for the ingredients, creates food that is fresh tasting and has good structure and texture. A pasta dinner becomes a light and comforting meal. Pasta primavera is no exception. Primavera means spring and the vegetables and sauce should reflect a meal with fresh green vegetables with a light sauce. A rich and heavy sauce will overwhelm the vegetables and drain one’s energy.
This recipe is from Cooks Illustrated and, like a lot of their recipes, has a lot of steps. However, these steps help build flavor and develop a creamy sauce without a trace of cream. Even still, this recipe has 6 steps and the original Le Cirque recipe has 10, so fortunately, it is not as involved as the original.
What makes Cook’s Illustrated recipe so different? The pasta is prepared like risotto. This technique develops lightly toasted pasta with a nutty flavor. Additionally, this technique produces a silky and creamy texture and a double layer of flavor from the vegetables.
I slightly adapted the recipe by adding mushrooms and lightly toasting the pasta. It is my experience the pasta does not toast evenly in a Dutch oven. It is too deep and therefore, you get an uneven toasting. However, it is convenient to cook this recipe in a Dutch oven, otherwise I need an extra-large sauté pan or more pans. My focus is on the flavors of the vegetables and creating a silky-smooth textured sauce. Because I like the flavor of this recipe so much, I decided not to eliminate the step altogether and just pared it down. I was concerned the luscious texture would not be the same without this step.
As the name suggests, Pasta Primavera is a spring meal overflowing with vegetables. Also contributing to the lively spring flavor are wine, lemon juice, and fresh herbs. This is one of the freshest tasting pasta primavera recipes I’ve had. It is a lovely spring melody of asparagus, peas, mushrooms, leeks, and fresh herbs. It is clear the vegetables are the star of the show.
Gluten-Free Pasta Primavera
A note for a gluten-free version of this recipe. It is my experience that gluten-free pasta breaks down when prepared following the risotto style directions. The result is an unappealing pile of mushy pasta with your delicious vegetables. I recommend substituting the recipe’s method of cooking pasta, and follow the directions given with your favorite gluten-free pasta. I am not certain why my quinoa pasta turned to mush, but it seems a gluten protein structure keeps the pasta shape intact.
You will need less stock and only add it to braise the vegetables. Lightly, cook the vegetables for less time, in a 12-inch skillet or sauté pan. Then, add some vegetable stock and wine and gently braise the vegetables until they are crisp tender. If you wish, just before serving, swirl in a couple of tablespoons of butter to the vegetables for a silkier sauce.
I would love to hear from you. Please tag me @lemonthymeandginger on Instagram or visit my Facebook page if you make this recipe or any recipe from Lemon Thyme and Ginger. Also, leave me a comment or question in the comment section below the recipe. I love to see and hear about your creations.
Spring Pasta Primavera
- 3 medium leeks halved lengthwise, washed then sliced into 1/4 inch slices
- 1 lb asparagus 453 g
- 2 cups 330 g frozen peas, defrosted
- 8 about 100 g white mushrooms, sliced
- 4 medium garlic cloves
- 4 cups 1 liter vegetable broth
- 1 cup water 250 ml
- 2 TB fresh mint minced
- 2 TB fresh chives minced
- 1/2 tsp fine lemon zest plus 2 TB lemon juice
- 5 TB Extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher Salt
- 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 pound 453 g pasta, like farfalle, penne, campanelle
- 1 cup 250 ml dry white wine
- 1 oz 31 g grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
- Freshly ground black pepper
Prep the vegetables:
Trim off the tough ends from the asparagus. Rough chop the tough fibrous ends and put into a large sauce pan. Cut the spears on the bias into one inch (2.5 cm) pieces. Set the trimmed spears aside.
Wash and trim off the dark green parts of the leeks and add to the pot with the tough asparagus ends. Slice lengthwise down the middle of each leek. Wash each half making sure all the dirt is washed off between the layers of the leeks. Dry them with a clean cloth and slice each half into thin half-moons. Set aside.
Defrost the peas and divide into 2-one cup (250 ml) portions.
Enhance the broth
Add the dark green leek trimmings and 1 cup of the peas to the pot with the asparagus trimmings. Add the vegetable broth and one cup of the water. Turn the heat to medium-high heat and bring the stock to a simmer. Turn down the heat and simmer the vegetables in the broth for about 10 minutes. Drain the vegetables from the stock through a fine mesh strainer over an 8-cup measuring cup or large bowl. Press down on the vegetables to extract as much of the juices as possible. Discard the vegetables and add more water to make 5 cups of stock. Return the stock to the sauce pan and keep warm on low heat.
While you are waiting for the stock to finish, mix the lemon zest, minced mint and chives into a small bowl. Set aside.
Cook the Vegetable Medley
Add 2 TB extra virgin olive oil to a Dutch oven and set the stove to medium high. When the oil shimmers, add the leeks and a pinch of Kosher salt. Stir to evenly coat the vegetables in olive oil. Cook the leeks until soft and just starting to brown about 4-5 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the trimmed asparagus and cook for 4-5 minutes until just tender, but still has a crispy bite. Add the red pepper flakes and minced garlic, stir and cook for around 30 seconds. Add the peas, stir and cook for about 1 minute. Taste the vegetables and add more salt if needed. Turn off the heat and spoon the cooked vegetable medley onto a plate. Reverse.
Cook the Pasta
Wipe out the Dutch oven and add 3 Tb extra virgin olive oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the pasta, stir and cook for about 2 minutes stirring constantly.
Add the wine and cook until the wine has dissolved. Stir frequently while the wine is reducing.
Add the vegetable stock. Turn the heat up to bring the stock to a light boil, then turn the heat down to medium. Frequently stir the pasta and cook until the pasta is al dente and has absorbed most of the stock. 10-12 minutes.
Putting it all together
Once the pasta is cooked al dente, turn off the heat and add the lemon juice, 1 oz (31 g) grated Romano cheese, and half the reserved minced herbs. Stir the pasta until the cheese is evenly combined. Add the vegetables and stir. Season with Kosher salt, ground pepper.
Serve immediately and garnish with remaining herbs and Romano cheese.
If you use store-bought vegetable stock, use one that is not predominately made with carrots or winter squash. The stock will look orange and so will everything you cook it with. There are many vegetable stocks on the market and all taste different depending on the vegetables used to make it. (This is one reason why I make vegetable stock). I cannot deny the convenience of store-bought stock, but I encourage you to read the ingredients so you know what you are getting.
© 2017 – 2018, Ginger Smith- Lemon Thyme and Ginger. All rights reserved.
Do you know that feeling you get when the family or friends are together and all is good with the world? It can happen spontaneously by a simple gesture or after a big heartfelt moment. I treasure those moments, the feeling of complete satisfaction and joy. Peace. At those times the little things do add up and are greatly appreciated. A simple “Thank you”, carries a generous statement of gratitude. “You are doing a great job”, gives a small boost of confidence. “I am here”, builds reassurance that you are not alone. Even a home cooked meal gives family and friends a time and place to gather, share show gratitude, promote confidence and feel connected.
I know it sounds cliché, but in our home that moment and feeling would happen when we served pasta for dinner. When pasta was on the table, everyone was happy. A pasta dinner satisfied all taste and food preferences in the family. There were no protests at dinner, even if it did include an ingredient that was not a particular favorite. That offending food would get pushed aside and everything else devoured without complaint. When the, “… What?… Why? …Really?…Again? …I hate that,” dinner drama was not a focal point of the evening, the five of us would be relaxed, the conversation would flow, jokes told, and all was right with the world.
On the occasions when I combined two favorite foods in one meal, that made the evening a special occasion. My children love ham almost as much as they love pasta and a dinner of pasta with ham, (and peas), filled them with joy. Andrew, Evan and Taylor loved it so much, they ate the peas without complaint. If I asked any one of them what they wanted for dinner, pasta with ham was frequently requested.
Now that my sons are independent, they enjoy cooking this meal for their friends and significant others. Often, on a late weekend afternoon, I would get a call asking me how to make this pasta dinner. My oldest son, Andrew, claims that it was after he made pasta with ham and spring vegetables for Amanda, “the woman of his dreams”, their relationship went from casual to true love. Now, Andrew and Amanda are happily married so don’t underestimate the power of a good home cooked pasta dinner.
When it’s pasta for dinner, all is right with the world.
Pasta with Ham and Spring Vegetables
- 1 lb pasta penne, farfalle or fusilli are great choices
- 12 oz cured ham sliced in strips 1 inch by 1/4 inch
- 1 cup fresh or thawed frozen peas
- 1 to 2 lbs of asparagus
- 1 small leek cleaned and white and light green parts sliced thin
- 1/2 cup vegetable broth preferably homemade or low salt store bought
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
- 3 garlic cloves minced
- 2 Tbls chopped fresh tarragon plus one sprig of tarragon
- 1 Tb olive oil
- 1-2 Tb butter
- Kosher salt
Prep all ingredients before you begin cooking.
Clean and cut off the woody end of each asparagus spear. Hold onto to each end of an asparagus spear and bend it bringing both ends together. Where it snaps off, the bottom portion is the woody tip, discard. Cut the remainder of the asparagus spears into thirds.
Peel the garlic and remove the green germ (sprout of a new garlic plant), then mince the garlic,
Slice the ham to even strips shorter than the asparagus.
Fill a 5 qt stock pot halfway to three quarters full with fresh water. Set the stock pot with the water on a burner and turn the heat to high. Bring the water to a rapid boil and cook pasta according to the directions on the back of the pasta box.
Reserve some of the pasta cooking water when finished cooking.
Make the spring vegetable and ham sauce.
Begin preparing the sauce while you are waiting for the water to boil. Melt 1 Tbl olive oil and 1 Tbl butter in a large 12-inch skillet, or sauté pan. Once the butter has melted add the leeks and garlic to the pan. Add a small pinch of Kosher salt and sauté stirring lightly. Add the prepared asparagus and tarragon spear to the leeks and briefly sauté. Add about 1/2 cup vegetable broth, cover the pan, and braise the vegetables on medium heat for about 5 minutes. The asparagus will not be completely cooked through at this point. You want them to still be crisp with some liquid in the pan. Take the top off the skillet and add the sliced ham and peas. Continue cooking the vegetable and ham mixture at a low simmer, uncovered. This should be around 3-5 minutes before the pasta is done. You are just warming up the ham and peas since they are already cooked.
Putting it all together
Once the pasta is done, turn off the heat, scoop out some pasta cooking water and set aside, and drain out the water through a strainer. Return the pasta to the pot on the stove. Add the grated cheese and a small amount of the pasta water, start with about 1/4 cup or less, to the pasta and stir until the cheese is melted and everything is evenly distributed. Add the vegetable and ham sauce, minced tarragon, and 1 Tb of butter or olive oil to he pasta. Stir until mixed through.
Serve immediately with grated cheese and fresh ground black pepper on the side.
1.It is hard to mess up with pasta, with the exception of overcooking it. Over cooked pasta is mushy and miserable. Use the back of the box as a guideline for cooking time and begin tasting a couple of minutes before the recommended total cooking time. Cook the pasta al dente. There will still be a firm texture, but not chewy or raw tasting. The color of the pasta will have an even appearance and there will be nothing mushy or gummy about it. 2. Just like overcooked pasta, overcooked vegetables are a major disappointment. They lose their shape, texture and flavor when they are overcooked. I like my vegetables cooked but still crisp in texture with a bit of freshness left in them. Watch the vegetables and taste for desired doneness.
© 2016 – 2018, Ginger Smith- Lemon Thyme and Ginger. All rights reserved.