This, dear reader, is a blog post of note. Not because the risotto under discussion was particularly brilliant - although it actually was - but because of who thought it up and who cooked it.
Me. This was my first ever main course risotto.
Yes, I do realise that dear Hubby is the Risotto Chef Extraordinaire of the family. However it occurred to me that it was all very well him knowing how to produce a good risotto, but perhaps it would be a good idea if I knew how to, as well!
Just as an aside, I did have an additional motivation, which was that poor Hubby has hurt his back and can't spend ages in front of the cooker stirring a risotto. I miss my risottos - they're another comfort food and you all know how much I love my comfort food.
In fact, this recipe began life in my head as a pie. Chicken, asparagus and tarragon pie - sounds good, eh? Well, that's what I thought. Then I had something of a tummy conniption (knew I shouldn't have had chilli con carne, followed by curry the next day!) and have had to steer clear of spicy or particularly fatty foods and let my poor old tummy settle. So that was the pastry option out of the equation - and when you start thinking about what else you could do with chicken, asparagus and tarragon, it's a short step to a risotto.
Whenever I'm thinking about a recipe that involves chicken, I immediately find myself being resistant to the idea of cubes of chicken meat. I haven't a clue what a cube of chicken meat has done to deserve it, but I really don't like it cubed. Cubes or chunks are okay for curries and some casseroles, but not for everything. Thin slices are good for stir fries and small chunks work in a pie. Risotto, however, now that demands shredded chicken. Don't ask me who made these rules, I'm sure I didn't. ~whistles innocently, whilst dragging one toe in the dust~
The chicken flavour I could imagine in my concept risotto, was a gentle, fresh chicken flavour. Not pan fried, or roasted. Too heavy. There was really only one choice left to me, which was poached. Now I've never poached a chicken breast before - well, there are so many "firsts" involved in cooking! - and had no idea how the flavour would wind up, but if my imagination was saying it would be just the job, ~shrug~, I'd go with it. I'd poach the chicken in the stock I was going to use for the risotto until just cooked, then shred the meat. That way, I'd be saving and using every ounce of flavour it was possible to achieve, from the chicken.
It is true to say that the most important ingredient in a risotto, is the stock. It is the stock that flavours the rice - and not just by providing the moisture around each grain, but by soaking into the rice and flavouring it from inside to outside. Thus, it is of paramount important that every flavour you want to be uppermost, is reflected in the stock.
I had the chicken flavour from the use of chicken stock (I used the fabulous chicken stock powder from Essential Cuisine, my favourite stock people) and poaching the chicken. The asparagus flavour is boosted by the addition of the offcuts from each asparagus spear, which are broken up so as to access all the flavour available. The addition of several full stems of fresh tarragon with leaves attached (plus the bald stems that you've taken the leaves from) makes sure that the three primary flavours are right up there.
If I relied upon the addition of the asparagus and tarragon at the end of the dish, the flavours would be nothing like as pronounced or established. Both ingredients do not have long enough in the pan to make sufficient impression upon the flavour of the whole. Hence, it is very well worth that little bit of extra work to include them in the stock. It is true, it does make finding the asparagus tips a bit like fishing in the undergrowth when it comes to blanching them - but it is worth it!
Now, let's discuss the basic stock. For goodness' sake, if you're going to use a commercially produced stock, don't use anything other than a reduced salt stock powder or stock cube. The pinch of salt that you add to the stock is sufficient and much, much less salt than you will get from a full-salt version. Bear in mind that the nature of a risotto is to absorb and reduce the stock. If you're reducing a full-salt stock, that can get hellishly salty - and once over salted, it is impossible in the time you have available, to bring it back.
So get yourself a good quality low salt stock - and if you're using home made, you might like to reduce it by boiling in a pan for a while, so as to achieve good, highly flavoured chicken stock. Oh, and when using home made chicken stock, you'll need to use your knowledge of how much salt is in it already, to decide whether you'll require the pinch or not.
A quick cook's tip, is to blanche your asparagus tips for no longer than 2 minutes or you stand the chance of losing the bright green colour when you re-heat them, prior to serving.
I know the recipe looks terribly complicated, but it really isn't - it's just that each stage took a lot of description, but is really quick to achieve! The end risotto is a lovely, light but satisfying, bowl of comfort food that - for once - doesn't leave you feeling all heavy and bloated. Now there is a place for heavy and bloated, I'll not deny that, but there is also a place for a lighter texture of comfort food. Food that gives you a big hug, whilst still letting you fit into your trousers, or behind the wheel of your car.
Having said all that, I won't go into too much detail about the ice cream, home made rhubarb jam, blueberries and amaretti that we had for dessert. ~kof~ (It was lovely, though!).
CHICKEN, ASPARAGUS & TARRAGON RISOTTO (serves 3 for a main course)
2-3 tsp low salt chicken stock powder (or sufficient low salt stock cubes) made up to 1 litre stock
a pinch of sea salt
a large pinch of ground white pepper
1 bunch (7-8 stems) asparagus
4-5 full stems of tarragon, plus 1 tbsp chopped tarragon leaves
2 skinless & boneless chicken breasts
1 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
a large knob of butter
2 banana shallots, peeled and chopped finely
300g arborio rice
100ml white wine (any kind, sweet works as well as dry)
a handful of defrosted frozen peas
grated parmesan cheese, to taste and for sprinkling.
1. Make up the chicken stock into a saucepan and place on the heat. You are aiming to bring the contents to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently.
2. Take the thick, woody ends off of the asparagus and smash by laying the side of the knife on top, then hitting with the heel of your hand. Add them to the stock pot, along with the tarragon stems (which should still have their leaves attached), salt and pepper.
3. Remove the tips from the asparagus and set aside, then cut each spear into small pea sized logs.
4. Cut each chicken breast into three evenly sized pieces and add to the hot stock. Cover the pan and simmer for 8-10 minutes, or until the chicken is just cooked through.
5. Remove the chicken pieces, retaining the stock, and shred the chicken.
6. Place the asparagus spears into the stock and blanche for 2 minutes, then remove and set aside.
7. Into a deep pan, add the oil and butter and heat gently.
8. Add the shallots and cook on a gentle heat until soft and yielding. Do not allow them to colour. Remove using a slotted spoon so that the majority of the buttery oil falls back into the pan, and set aside.
9. Increase the heat under the pan to high and add the rice. Stir the rice well, making sure every grain is covered in the buttery oil. Allow the pan to reach as hot a temperature as you dare, without burning the rice. Each grain should be taking on a slightly golden hue and screaming for mercy, whereupon you add your first ladle of stock.
10. The first ladleful will disappear in a great exhalation of steam from the pan, so be ready with a second. Stir the rice gently but constantly, allowing it to absorb the stock and release the starchy creaminess that epitomises a risotto.
11. Add the white wine and the cooked shallots and stir through.
12. Once the rice has just about absorbed all the stock, add the next ladleful. Stir, stir, stir. Risotto is not something you can leave to cook while you read a book. Continue in this vein - ladleful of stock, stir stir stir, pan dries out, ladleful of stock - until the rice is soft yet al dente. Patience, that's the key!
13. With your last ladleful or two of stock, add the chicken, tarragon leaves, asparagus logs and the peas. Place a lid on for a minute or so, then stir, replace the lid, then stir, replace the lid, until the asparagus has lost its raw crunchiness (but is still firm and bright green) and the chicken is heated through.
14. Put the asparagus tips back into the stock pot, to heat through and finish cooking for their last minute.
15. Add some grated Parmesan cheese - to taste - to the risotto and stir through.
16. You can adjust the texture of the risotto by adding a little more stock if you think it requires it - and having had a taste, adjust the seasoning by adding a little more white pepper or a pinch of sea salt, if required.
17. Finally, add the asparagus spears and serve with a light grating of Parmesan sprinkled over.