Monday, May 4, 2009

Celebratory Spring Risotto

We did it!

I’m writing this post while flying high in the air, cozily wrapped in a blanket as I enjoy a bird’s eye view of New Mexico from my JetBlue window seat. I’m on my way back to New York after a whirlwind week in L.A., having played the Beethoven Triple Concerto on Friday night with the great pianist Menahem Pressler and my cellist father. I’m finally catching my breath after the excitement of the last few days, and though it’s tempting to zone out and watch six hours of “Law&Order” episodes on DirecTV, I feel like I need to write and process what just happened to me this week. The flight attendants will be coming by with beverages and complimentary Terra Blues potato chips, but I brought my own food with me and will soon take a break from writing to enjoy the delicious Springtime Risotto that I made yesterday.

My mind is reeling as I replay the past seven days in LA in my head. It was an epic week on every possible level, not only for the musical journey but also in terms of emotional strength, physical stamina, and sheer mental endurance. If you’ve been reading these last few blog posts, you’ll know that much of my energy this spring has been intensely focused towards May 1st, the day of our Beethoven Triple performance. As much as I wanted to take advantage of such springtime gems as asparagus and ramps during these past few weeks, my cooking and writing endeavors were definitely shoved onto the back burner. Instead of spending time in the kitchen experimenting with magnificent morel mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns, I hunkered down in the practice room with my violin, spending many more hours obsessing over Beethoven. And it was worth it, for Friday’s concert was an absolute joy from start to finish.

I made my Springtime Risotto With Asparagus and Wild Mushrooms for a crowd yesterday, which was actually a very relaxing thing to do the day after the big concert. I think it would be fair to say that I made an entire VAT of risotto. Mr. Pressler was giving master classes at the university all day and was coming to our house for lunch, as would various other faculty members as well, and since I didn’t know how many people would be at our table, I wanted to have enough food for everyone who showed up. But the meal came together easily when I rummaged through the pantry and found a large bag of Arborio rice. This starchy Italian rice is traditionally used for making risotto, and I knew I could feed a crowd with this as the centerpiece of the meal, rounded out by some fruit and a big bowl of my favorite Spring Salad.

Patience is key when making risotto. Most basic risotto recipes will involve sautéing a diced onion with olive oil, then thoroughly coating Arborio rice with this mixture until the rice is lightly toasted, to which hot broth is added very gradually, one ladleful at a time, until all the liquid is absorbed and the pearly grains of rice expand and become tender. I love adding seasonal vegetables to my finished risotto, so I blanched a bundle of asparagus spears and sautéed some mushrooms to fold into the finished dish.

When I began to make the risotto itself, I felt like I was in a meditative state, deliberately dragging my wooden spoon across the bottom of the heavy-bottomed pot while gently coaxing the starchy grains to absorb the hot liquid. (Perhaps my being in slow motion was also because I was wiped out after expending so much energy at the concert the night before, not to mention staying up till 4 a.m. with Dad drinking a gorgeous and very celebratory bottle of Rafanelli zinfandel!) As I stirred methodically and patiently, my mind kept wandering back to our performance the night before, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

I kept thinking of how it felt to be on stage playing the Beethoven with Mr. Pressler and my dad and what an incredible experience that was. As the pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio for more than 50 years, Mr. Pressler has probably played the Beethoven Triple more than any other pianist alive, and it was a true privilege to play this profound musical work with such a great master of the piece. In this concerto, Beethoven has written a conversation between the three solo instruments, and the three of us had worked hard all week, to say nothing of the months of preparation leading up to this night. Once we walked onto the stage, the real fun could begin.

I was excited to play on Friday night, feeling openhearted and very warm, my hands limber and steady. Athletes talk about being “in the zone”, and that definitely applies to how I felt during this performance, as though time was happening in slow motion AND at warp speed all at once. I wanted to fully respond to everything I was hearing, savoring every moment. I kept delighting in the absolutely glorious sound Mr. Pressler drew out of the piano, basking in the beauty of each musical phrase he created. (Oh that sound, that soul-stirring sound!) I was thrilled that Dad played his very best at the concert itself, something we all strive to do as performers. I felt so honored to be standing there on that stage, and the two of them inspired me to pour my heart out through my violin. Words really fail me at such a time, but in the end I am unspeakably grateful for such an opportunity to come into contact with this great work of art, to explore it and then have a chance to share this incredible beauty with so many people.

It was a milestone of a week, one that involved an unbelievable amount of hard work and concentration with a big pay-off in the end. Mr. Pressler challenged us to the highest degree, putting my dad and me through our musical paces like no one else can. But when each rehearsal ended, we all gathered around our dining table for each meal, laughing and telling stories while sharing delicious food together. This satisfying Springtime Risotto was the final meal at our house this week, and it only seemed fitting to cap off such a great week on a culinary high note.

This risotto says springtime to me, the creamy rice amplified by fresh asparagus and brightened by fresh lemon zest and snipped chives. I like using shiitake mushrooms for this, but I suppose you could use creminis or even button mushrooms diced into small pieces. As with pasta, you want to cook the risotto until it is 'al dente', so that the rice has a little toothsome bite but is still very tender. Be patient while adding the hot stock to the rice, only about a half-cup at a time.

1 pound thin asparagus, woody ends trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon butter
¼ pound shiitake mushrooms, hard stems removed, caps cleaned and cut into ¼-inch thick slices
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
1-½ cups Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
½ cup grated parmesan, plus more for garnish
Salt and pepper
The grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons freshly snipped chives

Prep the vegetables before beginning the risotto. Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil. Have a bowl of ice water nearby. Blanch the asparagus pieces in the boiling salted water for 2 minutes, or just until tender-crisp. Use a slotted spoon to remove the asparagus pieces and transfer to the bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain the asparagus and pat dry with paper towels, then set aside.

In a medium skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook till they begin to soften, about 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Season with salt and pepper, then let the mushrooms cook until they begin to get crispy and brown, another 4 to 5 minutes. Set aside.

Place a medium saucepan on a back burner and bring the broth to a simmer over low heat. Keep warm while you begin the risotto.

Heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Cook the onion until translucent and softened, about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the rice and stir until all the rice is opaque and coated with oil, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and cook until the liquid is absorbed. Turn the heat down to medium-low.

Add the warm broth about a half-cup at a time, stirring well between additions, until all the broth is absorbed and the rice is tender and creamy but still with an al dente bite. This will take approximately 20 to 25 minutes. You don’t need to stir it constantly, but do keep an eye on it and stir frequently to prevent scorching should the liquid be absorbed too quickly. When the risotto is done, add the reserved asparagus, shiitakes, grated parmesan and lemon zest, stirring until well mixed and vegetables are heated through, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper, garnish each portion with a scattering of chives and additional parmesan, and serve immediately.

Serves 4 as a main course, or 6 as an appetizer portion.

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