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May 13, 2008

Asparagus Season

Dominic Armato
I hate -- HATE -- getting a great idea for a dish out of season, but I suppose the extra time percolating in the noggin isn't a bad thing. I think I cooked this one twenty or thirty times in my head before I finally got the chance to make it this week, and that's probably why it turned out so well. I'd originally planned on using fresh peas, but I think the Baltimore farmers market opened a little late for them. Asparagus, however, is everywhere this time of year, and it turned out to be a lovely substitute.

This particular recipe is not exactly in the quick and easy file. It's a four burner dish that combines an awful lot of elements and involves some critical timing. Plus, this is the snooty restaurant version of the recipe (not that I have a restaurant in which to serve it), but that doesn't mean you couldn't simplify it if you wanted. I've never tried them, but I understand there are some methods for baked risotto that are entirely respectable, if not quite the same consistency as the stovetop version, and the morels can sit for a bit after they've been sautéed. So it's possible to do this without having to simultaneously juggle multiple items. But if you're feeling brave, there's nothing like chicken stock simmering on the rear left, risotto stirring on the front left, salmon searing on the front right and morels sautéing on the rear right.

Admittedly, it's a little rich for spring far. But the flavors are there, man -- it turned out great. And the acid in the vinaigrette helps to keep it from getting too heavy. Incidentally, this is exactly the kind of dish I like to point out to those who insist that Carnaroli rice is "better" than Arborio. You want your risotto to have a little body so it stands up to being plated with the salmon fillets, and wonderfully creamy as it is, I think Carnaroli is a little too loose for this purpose.

Dominic Armato

1 lemon
1/3 C. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 C. loosely packed mint leaves
1 bunch asparagus
2 C. chicken stock
4 tsp. balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. very finely minced mint leaves
1 pint fresh morels
1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. extra virgin oilve oil
2 Tbsp. butter
1 1/2 oz. diced smoked pancetta
2 Tbsp. minced onion
1 C. Arborio rice
1 Tbsp. grated parmigiano reggiano
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 lb. salmon fillets, in four pieces
Seared Salmon with Sautéed Morels, Asparagus Risotto and Lemon-Mint Vinaigrette
Serves 4

The lemon-mint oil you'll use to make the vinaigrette can get pretty murky, so I think it's best to make it a day ahead of time if you can. If not, it'll still taste great, it just won't be as pretty. Using a vegetable peeler, peel all of the zest off one lemon, except for a bit at the ends (you'll need that later). Then lay the strips of lemon zest on a cutting board, outside down, and using a very sharp knife, lay the blade flat on a strip of zest and carefully shave off all of the white pith, leaving only the bright yellow zest. Once all of the pith has been removed, combine the zest with 1/3 C. extra virgin olive oil in a small saucepan or skillet and heat over medium. When the lemon zest curls up and gets golden around the edges, remove the pan from the heat and let it cool. Once it's cooled enough to transfer but is still warm, combine the oil and zest with 1/2 C. fresh mint leaves in a blender or mini prep and buzz away until they're completely combined. Let the oil sit for 2-3 hours at room temperature, then strain it through a fine-meshed sieve lined with cheesecloth. Discard the solids and refrigerate the oil overnight, if possible in a round-bottomed bowl. The next day, all of the muck should have settled at the bottom. Carefully spoon the clear oil off the top, discarding the cloudy stuff at the bottom. You should end up with about 1/4 C. of lemon-mint oil.

If you're making this dish the way I do, there's a lot of mise en place to get ready. You'll be doing way too much at the stove to be going back to the cutting board. So first, do all of your prep and have everything ready right by the stove. If you wash your morels, do that first and give them a chance to dry a little bit before you use them. Otherwise, start with the asparagus. Snap off the tough bottom ends and throw them away. Cut off the tips and save those in their own prep bowl. If you have larger, tougher asparagus with stringy skin, you may need to peel the skin off first. But hopefully you picked up some beautiful, fresh, tender asparagus at the farmers market. Snap one stalk in half and take a bite out of the middle to test it. If it's pleasant to chew raw, leave it alone. If it's stringy, peel it. At any rate, after removing the bottoms and tips, chop the rest into 1/4" slices if you have larger asparagus, 1/2" lengths if you have small, pencil-thin asparagus. You want to end up with 1 C. of chopped asparagus. Put enough salted water in a small saucepan to cover the chopped asparagus and bring it to a strong simmer. Then toss in the chopped asparagus (but not the tips!) and blanch it for a couple of minutes until it's tender but still a little crisp. Strain the asparagus, saving the asparagus water, and shock the asparagus in ice water. Then drain and reserve it. Meanwhile, combine 1 C. of the leftover asparagus water with 2 C. of chicken stock in a saucepan and bring to a simmer on the stove.

While your stock is coming to a simmer, you can do the rest of the prep. Halve or quarter the morels, depending on their size, and check the cores for little critters. Cut the smoked pancetta into 1/4" dice, mince up your onion, get 3 Tbsp. of butter sliced up and at the ready, slice your salmon into four fillets and set them out, get all of the other ingredients next to the stove, and get all of the necessary pans on the stovetop. You don't want to be rooting through cabinets and the fridge while you're in the middle of firing this thing.

Lastly, before you start, mix up the vinaigrette. If you didn't quite get 1/4 C. of lemon-mint oil, add enough olive oil to bring it up to 1/4 C., then mix it with 4 tsp. balsamic vinegar, 2 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice and 1 Tbsp. of very, very finely minced fresh mint. Give the vinaigrette a little stir, but don't whisk it -- you want it to separate and look pretty on the plate, so you don't want it to emulsify.

On the stovetop, start with the risotto. Have your asparagus water and stock mixture simmering at the ready, with a ladle at hand. Then combine 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil and 1 Tbsp. butter in a small, heavy pot and heat over medium-high until the butter foams and then subsides. When it does, toss in the diced smoked pancetta and sauté it until the edges just start to turn golden, about 4-6 minutes. Add the minced onion and continue sautéing, stirring frequently, until the onion turns translucent. Toss in the rice and cook, stirring constantly, for about a minute, so that the grains are completely coated with the oil and fat. Lower the heat slightly to medium, add a ladleful of the simmering stock mixture to the rice and stir until all of the liquid has been absorbed by the rice. Continue this process, a ladleful of stock at a time, waiting until it's completely absorbed before adding more, stirring almost constantly, until the risotto has cooked thoroughly, the grains are tender but still have some individual bite, and the mixture has a very nice, creamy consistency. If you haven't made a lot of risotto, just keep adding, absorbing and tasting until the texture seems right to you. If you run out of stock mixture and the rice still hasn't absorbed enough liquid, switch to simmering water so as not to make the flavor too intense. Once the risotto is cooked to the desired consistency, stir in 1 Tbsp. of butter and 1 Tbsp. of grated parmigiano reggiano, salt and pepper to taste, and get it off the heat. Ideally, you want to time the morels and salmon to be done at the same time. If the risotto has to sit for a few minutes, it's not a tragedy, but it's best eaten right away.

To cook the morels, heat 2 Tbsp. butter over medium-high heat until the butter foams and then subsides. Toss in the asparagus tips and cook, stirring, for about a minute. Then add the morels and cook for another minute or two until they're tender but still have some body. Remove from the heat, salt to taste, and reserve. If any of the hot components need to sit, let it be the morels.

To cook the salmon, heat 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. While it's coming to heat, season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper. Once the oil's hot but before it starts smoking, add the fillets to the pan, flesh side down, and sear them for 2-3 minutes until you have a nice crust and the filets are cooked about a third of the way through. Then flip them and cook another 2-3 minutes on the skin side until the salmon is cooked to your desired doneness. Personally, if that light pink color creeps all the way into the middle, I say they're way overdone. But it's a very personal call.

To finish the whole shebang, divide the risotto between four plates. Top the risotto with the morels and asparagus tips, and then the salmon fillets. If you're feeling saucy, pick out a couple of particularly pretty tips or morels and set them on top of the fish. Spoon the vinaigrette on and around the salmon and risotto, and then grate a little bit of fresh lemon zest over the top.

It's, uh... just that simple.


great recipe. I think I may try this.

Glad you think so, Andy! Please report back if you do. I know these dishes leave my kitchen tasty, but it'd be good to know if they're surviving the recipe translation.

It might be a few weeks until I can get some fresh morels though. I might have to resort to dried.

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