Roasted asparagus and saffron risotto

roasted asparagus saffron risotto

Ask two Italians what’s the correct way to prepare pasta. You will likely get 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, so I can’t ask how my grandmother. Nor my mum who – being Sicilian and adverse to creamy dishes –  did not like it. On the other hand I adore risotto and I prefer it light in texture and calories and made with minimal attendance.

In contrast I definitely dislike those stodgy concoctions obtained by beating the life out of the poor grains until they disintegrate and then cemented by extravagant amounts of cheese and butter!

Here are my own fundamental rules:

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 essential. I prefer to make a simple vegetable or chicken stock but a good quality bought stock with no MSG will do as well.

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 is evaporated. 

4) I cook all other ingredients – i.e. vegetables, meat or seafood – separately and add them when the rice is almost ready. Then I sprinkle some herbs if the recipe requires it.


  • 30 g / 1 oz pancetta cut into tiny strips
  • 400 g/ 1 lb green asparagus
  • 1 garlic clove
  • a few strands of saffron
  • 1 l / 5 cups low-salt chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 tablespoon butter or extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 2 cups Arborio, Vialone nano or Carnaroli rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano cheese

Dry fry the pancetta in small nonstick skillet until translucent. Add the saffron strands to 2 tablespoon of  broth and let it soak. Trim asparagus, toss with one tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and broil/grill until just tender. When they are still hot, add one  finely chopped garlic clove and cover to infuse for at least  10 min. 

Chop the garlic infused asparagus in 2 cm /1 inch pieces, cover again and set aside.

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 a completely 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.

When the rice is tender but still has a bite add the golden saffron liquid to the rice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.  For extra creaminess finish with cold diced butter stirring vigorously. Stir in the asparagus, the pancetta, 2 tablespoons Parmigiano and once last ladleful of broth. Cover and wait 5 min before serving. Serve, passing the remaining Parmigiano separately.

Serves 3-4

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  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

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