I know nothing about Italian cooking.
Well, let me qualify that with this: I know nothing about Italian cooking as it occurs in Italian homes, as true Italians practice it, or even as supposedly “authentic” restaurants interpret it. All I know about Italian cooking I learned from the back of a risotto box. And some books and other stuff, you know, relatively minor compared to the instructions from supermarket Arborio rice.
When I cook risotto, I follow a fluid procedure, one loosely derived from the broken English instructing me to not “drow [sic] the rice.” Give onions a little color, add the rice and saute it dry, then slowly, ever so gently add liquid and allow each grain to swell near to bursting before pouring in more stock, always stirring, stirring stirring stirring.
Yes, I’m using an oven mitt. Don’t ask why.
Cooking risotto, at least in my imaginary Italian world, is about ritual.
I pretend my Italian grandmother, face cobwebbed and slightly hunched over the pot, whispers in my ear, “You must feel the rice.” Systematically pouring, stirring, smelling and palpitating the grains generates a cycle of motion, a perpetual rotation and unstoppable whirlagigging calm.
Following the ritual isn’t that difficult; it’s written on the box. Intuiting, knowing when the rice holds the maximum amount of broth, binds together in a silken, organic mass and breathes independently, elastically tugging and yielding to the air, can’t be read so easily. The ritual helps us to know, to see the decisive moment: the rice is ready.
Here, I’ve incorporated asparagus into the risotto, added at that decisive moment. I cooked the asparagus beforehand, cutting the stalks into 1/2 inch segments and sautéing them in olive oil. The tips went into the pan after the tougher bottom pieces to equalize tenderness. Then, I added chicken stock and balsamic vinegar, reducing the liquid nearly completely before adding another dose. Stored in a mason jar in the fridge, the asparagus kept perfectly for a few hours before the risotto went on the fire.
Ritual plays a critical role in my experience of food, from preparation to service. Indeed, ritual helps to clarify and condense highly complex processes into transcendent serenity. This reminds me of a passage from The Sutra of Hui Neng where Hui Neng pounds rice for eight months waiting for enlightenment. When the Grand Master asks Hui Neng, “Is the rice ready yet?” He replies, “the rice has been ready for a long time, but it still wants sifting.”