Roasted asparagus and saffron risotto

roasted asparagus saffron risotto
This recipe has two versions: this is the saffron and asparagus risotto with pancetta

The many ways to make risotto

Ask two Italians what’s the correct way to prepare pasta. You will likely hear the same story from each of them: al dente, toss with sauce, serve piping hot.

Ask two Italians how to make risotto. You will get 2 stories. Ask 4 of them, you will get 4 stories. Stir, don’t stir. Use only butter, oil’s forbidden. No! Olive oil is OK. Condiments at the beginning, no, at the end. Rest, don’t rest. Finish with cream? No, cold butter! Vialone? Arborio? Carnaroli?

I am a “non-native” risotto eater.  Risotto is not traditional in Umbria, but I adore it and prefer it light in texture and calories and made with minimal attendance (see point 3 below).

On the contrary, I definitely dislike the heavy concoctions obtained by beating the poor rice grains until they disintegrate and then cemented by extravagant amounts of cheese and butter. Creamy and fat are desirable as long as there is an underlying flavor to define the dish.

Italian spring risotto asparagus saffron sundried tomato pancetta
Vegetarian version: saffron and asparagus risotto with sun-dried tomato

How to make a perfect risotto:

  1. Choose good quality risotto rice. I prefer Carnaroli which has a nutty taste and does not overcook easily. Arborio and Vialone Nano are also good. However, I have never found a non-Italian rice that will work for risotto.
  2. Good quality stock is truly essential. I prefer to make a simple vegetable or chicken stock, but a good quality store-bought stock with no MSG will do if you are short of time.
  3. It is also essential to use a large, heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. Distribute the rice in a thin layer, so the grains will cook slowly and at the same temperature. Only stir when adding the liquid, and then let it slowly simmer until most of the stock has evaporated. 
  4. Cook all other ingredients — i.e., vegetables, meat, or seafood — separately and add them when the rice is almost ready.  Sprinkle fresh herbs, if the recipe requires it, just before serving. This way, the main ingredients don’t overcook in the rice and keep their flavor and fragrance.

This recipe uses a small amount of guanciale (or pancetta) to add umami and balance the sweetness of the asparagus. For a vegetarian version, use sun-dried tomatoes. In Rome, I buy sun-dried tomatoes preserved in olive oil with capers. Their flavor is intense, sweet and not overly salty. I don’t use the capers in the risotto.

sundried tomatoes in olive oil with capers


  • 30 g  (1 oz) pancetta or guanciale cut into tiny strips OR 2 half sun-dried tomato preserved in olive oil
  • 450 g (1 lb) green asparagus
  • 1 garlic clove
  • a few strands of saffron
  • 1 tablespoon butter or extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 1 cups Arborio, Vialone nano or Carnaroli rice
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 3-4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano cheese

For the vegetable broth:

  • 1 small carrot, 1 stick celery, 1 plum tomato, 1/4 onion
  • 4-5 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 organic bullion cube


For the broth:

Boil all ingredients for 20 min.

For the asparagus

Trim asparagus, toss with one tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and roast/grill until just tender. When they are still hot, add one finely chopped garlic clove and cover to infuse for at least 10 min. 

roasted marinated asparagusFor the vegetarian version, mince the sun-dried tomatoes with the garlic clove and add to the grilled asparagus and cover.

In a small nonstick skillet, dry fry the pancetta, if using, over medium heat, until translucent.

Add the saffron strands to 2 tablespoons of broth and let it soak.

For the risotto

In a large pan, sauté the onion in butter, extra virgin olive oil or a mixture of the two until tender, about 8 minutes.

Risotto will have quite a different taste if it is made with butter or olive oil. Butter gives a richer and creamier texture. Olive oil is more gentle with delicate ingredients like spring vegetables and seafood.

Add rice and stir for 1 minute. Add wine and cook until absorbed, stirring often, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup broth and simmer until the liquid is absorbed, stirring often, about 4 minutes. After this initial stage you can continue to cook, adding more broth by ladlefuls and allowing liquid to be absorbed before adding more, stirring only after you have added the liquid.

Meanwhile, chop the garlic infused asparagus in 2 cm (1 inch pieces), cover again and set aside.

When the rice is tender but still has a bite, add the golden saffron liquid and strands to the rice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.  For extra creaminess, finish with cold diced butter, stirring vigorously.

If using meat, mix the asparagus with the pancetta and its melted fat, then add to the rice with 2 tablespoons Parmigiano and one last ladleful of broth.If making the vegetarian version, add the asparagus marinated with the sun-dried tomatoes, 1 ladle of broth and the Parmigiano.

Cover and wait 5 min before serving. Serve, passing the remaining Parmigiano separately.

Serves 3-4



Previous article
Next article


  1. Oh, yes, do not let me started about how unorthodox this recipe is… just cook it for me next time I visit!
    My personal point of view on unorthodox recipes is: if it is good, WHO CARES? And, being lucky enough to have tried your cooking more than once, I’m sure that this is spectacular!

  2. Letizia, I love your line about leaving the risotto to simmer, “Meanwhile, I have a life.”
    I think that might be what scares a lot of people (including me) away from making risotto very often — the idea it must be babysat every single second.
    This looks so good…but I wonder how it would taste with just a little pineapple? 🙂

  3. You have photographed your risotto beautifully (as well as explained beautifully how to prepare it!) My mouth is watering! I think I shall prepare this dish this weekend. (I’ll let you know how it turns out)

  4. Sandra, you better be careful or I will make you cook pineapple ravioli when you come!
    Melissa, yes please, let me know how it works out. Ruurd does the pictures BTW. Lucky me.

  5. Oh, my mouth is watering. I think I can actually smell the aroma. You have a wonderful writing style as well as super recipes…This one I will try/add to my “L” collection. Mahalo! menehune

Comments are closed.