I made some delicious risotto. It’s asparagus risotto with peas and mint to be exact. But before I tell you about it, I want to tell you all about how I was inspired to make it. And it involves a really fun day in Sicily with my dear ‘ole dad.
There was no way I could spend a week in Palermo, Sicily without having some Sicilian recipes to take home. Fortunately, my dad was a good sport and agreed to take a cooking class with me. We arrived to the Palazzo Brunaccini hotel at ten in the morning, and in usual Italian fashion, our chef was twenty minutes delayed. We enjoyed a coffee and tea while we waited, and on his arrival, he greeted us with a big hello and a happy demeanor that made any worries about time quickly forgotten. Since when did I get so Swiss about time anyways?
Our private chef for the day, Francesco, guided us through the nearby Ballaro market, showing us all the fresh ingredients that the spring day had brought us. It was hard to miss the yelling of the stall keepers, but Francesco quickly informed us not to worry; this was the norm. The guys are proclaiming that they have the best Fava beans and fresh tuna that the world has ever seen. And they are so cheap that they might as well be giving them away for free. Well, they didn’t give anything away for free but the prices sure were reasonable.
Francesco didn’t have a menu planned for us that day. He wanted us to tell him our favorite things that we saw while meandering through the market and he would figure out what to do from there. I mean, talk about a real chef. I knew right then I wouldn’t be leaving this cooking class with nicely printed recipes, but a seasonal and personalized menu was far superior. I named artichokes, fava beans, and asparagus and you could see his mind working. I proceeded to tell him that I didn’t like olives, which really caught him off guard, but he quickly recovered. He figured out our perfect menu and off we went to buy artichokes, fava beans, peas, asparagus, mint, parsley, squid, calamari, shrimp, and spring onions.
Francesco rents out his kitchen and restaurant from the hotel. Upon entering, I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t the beautiful Italian kitchen I’d envisioned, but once I was amongst the hustle and bustle of a real-life restaurant kitchen, I was mesmerized by the authenticity of our cooking class. A fellow chef, Roberto, was rolling out pasta dough and passing it through the machine multiple times until it reached the perfect thickness. Then, he rolled it through the cutter, delivering beautiful homemade tagliatelle pasta. Meanwhile, another guy was kneading dough for the fresh bread, Aldo was helping us de-shell the million peas for our lunch, and multiple delivery guys were bringing in the fresh and organic ingredients for dinner that night. Needless to say, there was never a dull moment in Francesco’s kitchen.
We peeled and chopped, gutted and cleaned, boiled and blanched, and fried and sautéed our hearts out. To keep us going until the final meal, Roberto deep-fried us some calamari, croquettes, and shrimps to eat alongside our prosecco. I guess I’ve never experienced good calamari because I found out that when it’s good; it doesn’t need to be dipped or doused in anything but a bit of lemon juice.
Francesco made us an “amuse bouche” to start our meal, with some of the extra ingredients from our lunch. He nicely plated the grilled mixed seafood over our pea sauce, and topped it with asparagus and pistachios.
Next up was our starter, which I was happily surprised by its amazing flavor. It was an artichoke, fava bean, onion, and pea salad, served on top of pea sauce, drizzled with a goat cheese fondue, and topped with a few toasted pine nuts. Seriously, perfection.
And the main. Oh the fresh tagliatelle, combined with asparagus, calamari, squid, peas, mint, asparagus broth, lots of olive oil, and topped with lemon zest.
We stuffed ourselves. We didn’t have time to make dessert, but Francesco still served us some of his desserts he had on hand, and the chocolate truffles were amazing. I asked if I could buy some, but he just gave me a few more to eat on the spot.
This was the least structured and most improvised cooking class I have ever taken, but I think that’s what made it the most fun cooking class I have ever taken. Even my dad, who only took the class for my sake, said it was the highlight of his trip (besides spending time with me of course). Francesco is so passionate about creating delicious and fresh meals, and it showed in his preparation and final product. And we had a lot of fun being behind the scenes for a day. After peeling, boiling, blanching, deshelling, and cooking hundreds of peas, I have a whole new appreciation for the food that restaurants serve me.
I came home from vacation without printed recipes, but with a whole new excitement for spring vegetables. I was inspired by the combination of the veggies in the tagliatelle, so I experimented with a new version of my favorite Italian dish; asparagus risotto with peas and mint.
The thought of making risotto scared me for a long while. But when I fell in love with it and started ordering it at every restaurant I went to, I figured it was time to learn how to make it at home. It turns out, there is nothing scary about it! It’s just a little time consuming, so be sure you have 45-60 minutes to devote to making dinner.
It’s as simple as sautéing some onions, adding the Arborio rice, deglazing with wine, and gradually adding in broth until it’s soft but a bit chewy. I don’t add cheese because I don’t think it needs it, but cheese lovers are welcome to add a bit of parmesan at the end.
Now grab a glass of vino bianco.
And pretend you are back in Sicily for the night.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 shallot, diced
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1 cup // 200 grams Arborio rice
- ½ cup dry white wine
- zest from one lemon
- juice of ½ lemon
- 4-5 cups vegetable broth (or chicken for non-vegans)
- 1 lb // 500 grams snap peas, deshelled
- 1 bunch asparagus, cleaned and trimmed
- 4-5 sprigs of mint leaves, finely chopped
- In a medium pan, heat your olive oil on medium heat. Place your onions and shallots to the pan and sauté for about 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 3 more minutes. Stir in the rice and cook for 2 minutes. Turn the heat to medium low, and add in the lemon juice, lemon zest, and white wine. Cook and stir until all the liquid has been absorbed. Start adding in ½ - ¾ cups of broth at a time, letting all the liquid absorb before adding more, stirring often.
- While the rice is cooking, bring a pot of water to a boil. Place the asparagus spears into the boiling water. Let boil for 2-3 minutes, or until cooked with a slight crisp. When ready, pull the asparagus out of the water and immediately run them under cold water, or place in ice water to stop the cooking. Once cooled, dice into 1-2 inch pieces.
- In the same boiling water, repeat the boiling and blanching process with the peas.
- Once you’ve added enough broth to make the rice soft but slightly chewy, turn off the heat and stir in the in the asparagus, peas, and mint. Add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.
- If you are not vegan, I recommend using chicken broth for more flavor. If you like cheese, add in 1/4 cup of parmesan at the very end. Alternatively, if you want a cheesy flavor while keeping the dish vegan, stir in 1/4 cup of nutritional yeast at the end.