This recipe of risotto is typical of Tuscany and Northern Italy, where asparagus is a symbol of Spring. I use a variety of asparagus that is local and smaller but tastier of bigger varieties. Risotto is a much appreciated first course on Italian tables, and this recipe can be re-used with other vegetables, but the main steps are the same.
The origin of this dish is quite ancient, since there is news of the cultivation of rice in Italy since 15th century. Rice made a very long journey, from its domestication from the wild grass Oryza rufipogon roughly 10,000–14,000 years ago the middle Yangtze and upper Huai rivers, as archaeological evidence points out. In Italy, rice as an exotic spice had been introduced by Arabs in Sicily, and later by Aragon dynasty during their domination of the kingdom of Naples. From there, it slowly spread to North, to Tuscany and later to Lombardy, under the rule of Lodovico Sforza. Since at the time also the great Leonardo da Vinci was working at his court, some Lombard people like to think that Leonardo himself suggested to turn the Lombard marshes into paddies, but there is no historical evidence of it. What we know for sure, from diplomatic correspondence we know that rice was cultivated in Milan, and in 1375 Lodovico had sent some rice sack to the Dukedom of Ferrara as a gift, in order to introduce its cultivation in Ferrara too. The typical Italian rice derives from the Japonica variety, more adaptable in the temperate regions of Europe.
In some way, this risotto with vegetables is a variation of more prestigious recipes, like the typical Milanese risotto with saffron, of which we have a recipe from Leonardo. As rice was still an exotic and expensive vegetable, it was eaten at the courts, and enriched by other valuable ingredients, as saffron, or cinnamon, the addition of savoury meat stock, and later it developed in fantastic dishes as Parmigiano risotto or the Champagne one.
Steam the asparagus for 10 minutes, they must be crunchy.
Cut the tips apart, then chop the rest of them.
In a saucepan, melt 2 tablespoon butter and sauté for 1 minute the tips of the asparagus. On the stove, keep the stock warm.
In another saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon butter and 2 tablespoons oil. Sauté the onion in it, and stirring often, until golden and very soft, 8–10 minutes. Stir in rice. Cook, stirring, until some grains are translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the asparagus (not the tips) and ladle in ½ cup broth and simmer, stirring frequently, until completely absorbed, 5–6 minutes.
Cook the rice for about 12 minutes, stirring and adding the warm stock in small ladles.
When rice is cooked al dente, turn off the stove and add the rest of the butter, stir, pour the Grana, stir, the tips of the asparagus and carefully stir.
Cover with the lid and let it sit for a couple of minutes and serve.