Regardless of this uninvited heatwave here in Los Angeles—yes, it is literally 90 degrees today—we want to believe or at least pretend that it is still winter. Trust us, we are not complaining one bit, but 90 in February is a little extreme, and it would be nice to experience all four seasons equally. We have a dream! Speaking of balance, we dedicated the first half of this month to making cookies, caramels, and sweet Valentine’s Day desserts, so today we are honoring the yang to our yin and sharing a delicious risotto recipe, adapted from one of our favorite cookbooks, The Veganomicon. And since it is still technically February, asparagus season has officially begun and it is the perfect time to start making some meals with it! This creamy risotto highlights this healthy winter vegetable in the most flavorful way possible: sautéed asparagus tips are cooked separately until golden and crispy while the remainder is sliced and cooked gently with Thai basil, fresh mint leaves, loads of shallots and seasoned with chopped garlic and a spicy serrano pepper for heat. The risotto is simmered with a fragrant homemade broth filled with fresh lemongrass, ginger, crushed garlic, and soy sauce. Even though Mother Nature has hastily decided to pour a glass of Sangria, start eating ice cream bars, and sport a bikini, we are going to sit here patiently and enjoy one of our favorite dishes as though it was winter.
This Thai-inspired meal combines everything we love about Italian risotto—tender arborio rice lovingly prepared and stirred until rich and creamy—but with fresh aromatic flavors of southeast Asia like lemongrass, ginger, and garlic. Using bright herbs, freshly-squeezed lime juice, and a hot serrano pepper, this hearty meal is inspired by classic dishes like Tom Yum Soup, bringing a spicy and savory twist to this beloved Italian tradition. And if you have never cooked with lemongrass before, you are in for a treat! It has an invigorating scent, similar to lemons but with a unique tanginess, and any stalks that you have left over can be used to make a soothing cup of tea. The other ingredient that makes this dish shine is Thai basil, which is similar to the sweet Italian variety, but with a slight hint of anise or licorice. It adds a unique flavor, but if you cannot find it in stores, feel free to use regular basil instead—the dish will be just as delicious! The recipe uses a short-grain rice called Arborio, which has lovely translucent grains and a higher starch content than other varieties. When cooked slowly, the stirring action releases the starch, giving the risotto its creamy, satisfying richness, without using any butter, cream, or cheese!
Risotto is a simple dish to make, and the technique is as basic as stirring a pot. To get the classic creaminess that risotto is famous for, the rice is stirred as you slowly add the broth a little at a time, allowing the silky texture to develop gradually. You will find a rhythm as you stir, add broth, and stir some more, and before you know it the risotto will be intensely flavorful and perfectly cooked. The other technique used for this recipe is making a bouquet garni, which is simply a bundle of herbs bound together and placed in the broth to infuse it with flavor. Traditionally they are made with thyme, bay leaves, and rosemary, but here we use freshly-sliced lemongrass, crushed garlic, and slices of ginger, making it deliciously bold and tangy. This bundle of herbs is placed in a large teabag or square of cheesecloth, then tied with a string to keep them contained, while their essence fills the broth. Risotto may have a reputation for being time-consuming to prepare, but in fact the steps are straightforward, and we make the directions as easy as possible. This is truly one of the best risottos we have ever had—rich, creamy, and satisfying, yet light and bursting with fresh exotic flavor—and it is the perfect comforting winter meal. Even if it is 90 degrees outside.
Asparagus Risotto with Lemongrass and Thai Basil
adapted from the Veganomicon
serves 4 to 6
For the lemongrass broth:
2 small (about 6-inch) stalks lemongrass
3 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
3 cups vegetable broth
3 cups water
3 tablespoons soy sauce (or tamari to make this gluten-free)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
For the risotto:
1 pound asparagus
5 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 cup (35g) Thai basil leaves, rolled up and sliced into thin strips
2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves
6 large shallots, halved and sliced thinly
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 serrano chile pepper, sliced thinly
1 1/2 cups (312g) Arborio rice
1/3 cup cooking sherry
3 tablespoons lime juice (about 3 small limes)
lime wedges, for serving (optional)
Prepare the broth:
Cut the lemongrass into 3-inch segments, then cut each one in half lengthwise and slice it into thin matchsticks. Use the flat side of a knife to crush the garlic slightly, leaving the cloves whole, and do the same to the ginger slices. Place the lemongrass matchsticks, garlic cloves, and ginger slices into an extra-large teabag or square of cheesecloth and tie the top with string, making a bouquet garni. Place the bag in a medium saucepan, and add the broth, water, soy sauce, and sugar. Cover pan, bring to a boil over high heat, then turn heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the bag of herbs, re-cover the pan, and turn heat as low as possible to keep warm.
Make the risotto:
Remove the tips from the asparagus, and place them in a small bowl. Slice the asparagus stalks into 1/2-inch pieces, and place them in a separate bowl.
In a large saucepan (about 4 quart), heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium, then add the asparagus tips and sauté until al dente and slightly crispy, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the tips from the pan and place them back in their small bowl. Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan, then the asparagus pieces and sauté until al dente, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the sliced basil and mint leaves, stir and cook for 30 seconds, then remove from heat and place the mixture back in the bowl, still separate from the tips.
Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil to the saucepan, then add the sliced shallots. Sauté until the shallots are softened and beginning to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the serrano chile, garlic, and rice, and cook for about 8 minutes, stirring constantly, until the rice starts to have a toasted aroma. Add the sherry and stir until the liquid is gone. Now we can start adding the broth: using a ladle or heatproof measuring cup, add 1/2 cup of hot broth to the rice, stirring constantly. Stir until the liquid is absorbed, then add another 1/2 cup of broth. Repeat in this way, stirring the whole time, until all the broth is gone and the rice is creamy and tender with a slightly firm center, which will take about 30 minutes. Then add the asparagus-basil mixture (not the tips!) and cook, stirring constantly, until the asparagus is tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in the lime juice, and let the risotto rest for 5 minutes. Transfer risotto to bowls for serving, and top each one with the asparagus tips. Serve hot, with lime wedges at the table if desired, and enjoy!
— Thai basil is especially good here, but if it is difficult to find, then regular basil will work just as well.
— To make the bouquet garni, the easiest technique is to place the herbs in an extra-large teabag, then tie the top with string. You can also use a square of cheesecloth to hold the bouquet, which will work just as well.
— The Veganomicon recommends to remove the bouquet garni after 10 minutes of simmering in the broth, which is what we did here. However, we suspect that the broth would have even more flavor if the bag is left in the whole time, so we will try that next time we make this.
— To make this gluten-free, use a gf tamari instead of soy sauce.