Celebrate spring with risotto
We're only a couple of weeks into springtime, and already the world looks fresh again. The last of the snow is melting. Flowers are poking up from the ground. Trees are budding. And many farmers' markets and supermarkets alike are beginning to showcase the best of the season's new crops.

It's enough to make you want to run into the kitchen and cook something delicious!

At this time of year, I especially love to showcase vegetables. You'll see me simply boiling or steaming them until they're tender-crisp and serving them just as they are, perhaps with a drizzle of fruity extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Or I'll cut them up and rapidly saute them in just enough oil to glisten in the pan. Maybe I'll simmer a medley of cut-up vegetables together in some broth to make the delicious soup my mother used to prepare for my sisters, brother, and me from the our home garden. Or I might toss the vegetables with some cooked fresh or dried pasta, adding a little olive oil or butter and some freshly grated Parmesan or crumbled fresh goat cheese.

Doesn't that all sound good?

One of my favorite ways to showcase springtime's new vegetables, though, is to include them in a risotto. The classic northern Italian rice dish relies on patiently stirring plump-grained varieties of rice such as Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano with ladleful after ladleful of hot broth, until the rice is tender but still chewy and surrounded by a sauce made creamy by its own dissolved surface starches.

The recipe I share here for Spring Vegetable Risotto highlights young, pencil-thin asparagus and baby spinach leaves, combined with cooked rice made vivid green by stirring in a puree of those two vegetables. Tender asparagus tips garnish each serving.

The secret to the risotto's dazzling color relies on the classic kitchen technique known as blanching. This refers to precooking vegetables--here, the asparagus and spinach--briefly in boiling water and then draining and instantly plunging them into ice water, a step that literally sets the vegetables' hues at their most vivid. Once blanched, a vegetable can be cooked further however you like, without diminishing how beautiful it looks.

Try blanching and you'll be amazed by the results. Then, after you've prepared the recipe once as I've written it, start making variations with other vegetables. Blanch and add small florets of broccoli or cauliflower, or sliced carrots. Introduce other vegetables that don't need blanching, such as strips of roasted and peeled red bell pepper, or sliced and sauteed mushrooms.

Let your imagination, and whatever looks best to you at the market, guide you in this celebration of spring!

SPRING VEGETABLE RISOTTO

Serves 4

1 pound pencil-thin asparagus, trimmed

4 ounces baby spinach, washed, dried, stemmed, blanched, liquid squeezed out

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

2-1/2 to 3 cups good-quality canned chicken broth or vegetable broth

1 tablespoon minced garlic