Asparagus, lemon and mint risotto

Asparagus lemon mint risotto © J Horak-Druiff 2011


If there is one language I long to speak, it is Italian.  It is a language that you don’t just speak – you inhabit it with your entire body.  Watching people at a train station talking on their mobile phones, it is impossible not to guess immediately who the Italian is.  Most people will walk while talking on their mobiles; some may even use the odd hand gesture.  But the Italian will be the one who is shrugging, throwing his hands up, rolling his eyes heavenward and talking with his whole body as he makes a particularly strident point.  It is more like watching a carefully choreographed piece of modern ballet than something as banal as a phone conversation.

And anyway, words just seem to sound better if you emphasise them with the appropriate lilt to your voice and rhythm to your speech (Lu-iiiii-gi!  Giu-seeeeee-ppi! Mangi-aaaaaa-mo!).  Plus you have to love a language that comes up with delightfully eccentric food names like:

  • Tiramisu (“pick-me-up”) – a dessert of mascarpone, cocoa and coffee & booze soaked savoiardi cookies
  • strozzaprete (“priest-stranglers”) – a large variety of pasta.
  • ligue di gatti (“cats’ tongues”) – sweet cookies
  • spaghetti puttanesca (“whore’s style spaghetti”) – a pasta sauce with chilli, anchovies, tomatoes olives and capers
  • Sospiri di Monaca (“nun’s sighs”) – a type of macaroon
  • Le Palle de Nonno (“Grandfather’s balls”) – a kind of knobbly salami





The Italians also gave us the far less eccentrically named dish of risotto – rice cooked in a soupy broth until al dente and suffused with the flavours of the cooking liquid.  Rice was brought rice to Sicily and Spain by the Arabs and made its way across the Italian border to the Po Valley in the fourteenth century, where it found the perfect combination of environment and climate: flat lands, an abundance of water, and high humidity. Rice cultivation became so intensive in the area that rice is now considered a staple food of this part of Italy, and risotto is certainly its flagship dish.

Yet all that risotto recipes require are four basic components: soffritto (sautéed vegetables), broth, flavoring ingredients, and Italian rice. The soffritto consists of a combination of finely diced vegetables and onion, butter and oil sautéed in the same pot or pan in which the rice will be cooked.  The broth can be beef, chicken, vegetable or fish, depending on the flavour of the finished recipe, usually with some wine included. The flavoring ingredient is what will give the finished risotto its unique flavour (mushrooms, butternut squash, truffles, shrimp etc etc). The Italian rice varieties (e.g. Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone) all have short grains, are rich in starch, and can absorb a considerable amount of cooking liquid while still remaining firm.  The final result is a flavourful, glutinous dish where individual grains of rice remain firm but stuck are stuck together because of their high starch content.





People have this impression that preparing a good risotto is hard, but it really isn’t – and here are my top tips for the perfect risotto:

  • Choose the right rice.  No, you cannot make a proper risotto with basmati or par-cooked long-grain rice!  It needs to be short-grained and starchy.  Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone might be expensive where you live, but they are a necessary extravagance if you want a good risotto.
  • Do not wash the rice before cooking as washing would eliminate a large part of the starch that gives the risotto its texture.
  • When you are sautéing the soffrito/onion, do not do so for too long (2 minutes or so is sufficient) and stir constantly so that the onion does not catch, otherwise  the burnt/caramelised taste will permeate the whole risotto and spoil it.
  • Do not stint on the broth.  There is not much else going on, flavour-wise, in a risotto so if you use a cheap-tasting broth, that will be the predominant flavour of your risotto.  A good homemade broth or premium instant broth is best.
  • Add the broth a ladleful at a time, not all at once and keep the heat at medium – too fast, and the rice will not have a chance to absorb enough moisture!  Add more broth as soon as the last lot has been absorbed, otherwise the rice will stick to the pot/pan.
  • When the rice is close to being fully cooked, taste it for readiness.  It should be neither too hard nor too soft, but just al dente (cooked on the outside but still slightly resistant in the middle) – it should take about 20 minutes.  Once the texture is right, remove the risotto from the heat, otherwise it overcooks.
  • If you want a creamy risotto, do not skip mantecare – the final step where you stir cubes of butter into the finished dish!

This particular risotto (based on a Jamie Oliver recipe) is perfect for Spring and early Summer, when English asparagus are in season.  Although risotto is often seen as a starchy and possibly heavy comfort food, the addition of lemon juice and mint makes this one seem as light and summery as a warm summer evening in the garden. Mangiamo!





200g fresh asparagus, ends trimmed and cut into 2cm lengths, plus a couple whole for garmish
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
Juice from half a medium lemon
300g of risotto rice (see above for types)
60g Parmesan cheese, grated
150ml dry white wine
2 tbsp olive oil
20g +20g butter
600ml vegetable stock
1 tbsp fresh mint leaves, finely chopped


Melt 20g of the butter together with the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Add the onion and garlic and saute until the onion is translucent and soft but do not let it brown.

Add the rice and cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly stir so that each grain is well-coated with oil/butter.  Add the white wine and keep stirring until the liquid has been absorbed almost completely.

Add the hot stock a ladleful at a time (probably about 150-200 ml per ladle).  Keep stirring until each ladleful has been completely absorbed, but do not let the rice dry out and stick to the pot.  Once each ladleful is absorbed, add the next until the stock has all been added.  The rice should be soft but each grain should retain some bite in the centre, perfectly al dente, which should take about 20 minutes.

5 minutes before the rice is ready, cook the asparagus pieces in boiling water for 3-4 minutes, or until tender.  Drain and reserve.

Stir the asparagus, mint and lemon juice into the risotto. Cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, until heated through. Remove from the heat and stir in the grated Parmesan cheese and remaining 20g of butter. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Using a vegetable peeler, slice your reserved whole asparagus into thin ribbons.  Garnish the risotto with this and a little more grated Parmesan and serve immediately.  In keeping with the Italian theme, I paired this with a Morrisons Best Italian Gavi, which had enough fruit flavours to pair well with the creamy rice.


If you liked this risotto, you may also want to try my:


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  1. says

    Nice tips. I recommend anyone that like rissoto to learn this recipe, is much much healthier that any restaurant, and totally agree rissoto whith lemon make thr dish special and also the parmesan cheese quality is very important

  2. says

    Jeanne, this post has come at the right time. The husband-who-loves-simple-sauce-pastas does not like risottos sadly, so I never attempted it at home (how boring to eat it alone etc etc). I made my first risotto, under instruction in Venice in May- a glorious cuttlefish one that took ages but was worth it for both the company I shared it with and it’s lush decadence. I want to replicate at home now, and will invite a few guinea piggies over and use your tips. And all the while, I’ll stir the pot like an Italian mamma and shout out” Bellissima” one of the very few Italian words I know!

  3. says

    Oh Jeanne. How lovely.
    I will have you know that we make a damn fine putanesca (what does this say about me?) and also I myself can make a very fine risotto.
    I think that Italian will be the next language I study at University.
    I also love the body language and the language of the Italians relationship with food.
    You write to so well.
    Móna xx

  4. says

    Ah Italians… Yes. Love them and we’re hoping to go to Italy again next year to sample more of that gorgeous cucina. And risotto. I don’t know why that seems to be so hard to make as it really is not. You’ve got to pay some attention to it but I love it!! Great flavor combo here too!

  5. says

    Yes the Italians have a way with words and food – what else does one need? Mmmh! The risotto looks incredible but for some reason I think there is something missing – maybe some stubby chunks of butternut squash? Seriously it’s a lovely dish with lovely flavors!

  6. says

    your post made me smile after a crabby day :) thank you!
    I recently learned to love risotto – the ones my brother makes are just fabulous! Never made it myself, maybe I should do so soon…

  7. says

    Great tips. Making risotto is really so simple when you know how – as is speaking Italian! A little bit of practise is all it takes – and looks like you’ve mastered lots of the foodie basics :-) Asparagus and parmesan is such a wonderful combination, yum.

  8. says

    What an awesome blogpost and stunning photographs and styling. All those years of practice and a growling hungry hubby are paying off. You have taught yourself so much and I am so impressed. No wonder you are such a great teacher. I could tuck into that delicious risotto right now….I WISH!! but soon!! Love you and thank you so much for your lovely comment on my blog earlier xx

  9. says

    What wonderful pix of asparagus, Jeanne. Verrry classy! Love the sound of this recipe too, even though I’m not much of a risotto eater. Looks so fresh and fragrant. x

  10. says

    @firefly – that’s mostly what I DO in Italy hahaha!
    @Sylvie – me too – love the passion and the idea of behaving as though nobody is watching, all the time. It’s so easy to mimic – my husband believes that speaking English n a heavy accent to mimic the locals os almost as good as speaking the language ;o)
    @kitchenvoyage – glad you like it – and yes it is a relatively healthy treat. The quality of the Parmesan – and the rice – are both crucial to this dish as it is soooo simple.
    @Brian – eating this is the next best thing to speaking Italian – I guarantee you ;o)
    @Nina – thanks doll!
    @Ishay – I wish I could come to that dinner! The best thing about risotto (apart from the taste!) is that you can give it practically any flavour you like! And don’t forget to shout “Mangiamo!” too when you are dishing up 😉 Tell J he does not know what he is missing!
    @Mona – aaah, thank you for your lovely comments :) What does it say about you that you make a fine putanesca? Well, they say a man likes a woman who is like his mother in the kitcen and like… well… a puta in the bedroom! you’re simply combining the two hahaha. Italians have such a healthy relationship with food – worshipful, but healthy. I want to BE italian.
    @Krista – I love how risotti can be simple and deliciousm or complex and delicious. So customisable!
    @Simone – what’s there not to love abotu Italy and the Italians?? Thank heavens my brother had the good sense to marry an girl form an italian family LOL!
    @Robyn – I had to giggle at some of those words. They just sound RUDE, even if you don’t understand italian 😉
    @Meeta – ah yes, of course – buternut squash! maybe some spicy Norwegian sausage? ;o)
    @Astrid – my work here is done if I got you to smile :) Hope you get to make your own risotto soon – it’s so worth it…
    @Kitchen Butterfly – thanks so much!! Asparagus can be a pain to photograph but these turned out so well. How about a midnight feast of… asparagus? LOL!
    @Heidi – risotto is a great way to sneak vegetables into a kid’s diet – they are so nusy with the creamy rice and the cheese, they forget to panic about the veggies!
    @Shel – so glad you like te photos – and please do try the recipe – it has a high reward to effort ratio ;o)
    @thelittleloaf – the great thing abotu Italian is that it is so phonetic! None of the confusion of silent e’s, k’s or gh’s of english!
    @colleen – aww thanks blogmamma! If I look back at my first photos I want to run and hide my face in shame! I have learnt so much over 7 years, mostly from divine, carig bloggers who have shared their knowledge with me freely, and all i am doing now is giving back!
    @kms – so glad you like it and welcome to CookSister!
    @Jane-Anne – thanks doll! The asparegus were very obedient and biddable models ;o) the nice thing abotu this risotto is that it actually tastes quite light – and it is often the perceived stodginess that pust people off.
    @Marisa – ja – this takes a winter dish and deftly turns it into a spring/summer treat! It’s also a bonus for gluten-free guests…
    @PinkPolkaDot – let me now if you need any tips – we can live-Tweet as you make your risotto!