Because I live in Paris part time, and because that time is never the same from year to year, I've gotten to see the markets in every season. I've been there when the fragrance of strawberries can make you dizzy, when the stalls are piled with poultry in full plumage, when all there is that's "fresh" is potatoes, when there are so many varieties of apples that you need to shop with a botanist, and when, just about now, asparagus spears are arranged in pyramids so tall it's impossible to see the vendor behind them.
The French make a big deal about asparagus, and I applaud them for it. It's not just a wonderful vegetable: It's a sign of hope and happiness, the harbinger of all the other spring vegetables and summer fruits to come.
No sooner does asparagus turn up than it's on every menu. You can pretty much be assured that when you're invited to a friend's home for dinner, there will be asparagus to start the meal or to partner with a main course. My French friends will eat asparagus several times a week, because they know that the season is short and that it will be a year before they'll have it again.
Like mes amies, I frequently serve asparagus solo. But I love to play with the vegetable and pop it into other dishes. Do it right, and even the simplest dishes can be made to seem luxurious.
That's what happens with this rice. On its own, the rice is rich and satisfying. Add asparagus and it's elegant.
Although the rice may remind you of risotto, it's actually a cross between a pilaf and boiled rice ordinaire. The last-minute additions of cream and cheese give it the lush texture we love in risotto, without the 30 minutes of stirring. You can call it a cheat; I think of it as culinary magic.
To give the rice layers of flavor and texture, I also add sauteed shallots, garlic and sliced asparagus stalks as well as fresh, crisp sliced scallions and lots of fresh herbs. It's always fun, and delicious, to add something fresh and bright to a cooked dish. Before the rice goes to the table -- and I usually send it out as a starter -- I finish the dish with asparagus tips.
• Be picky about your asparagus. Choose medium-thick spears (you can use pencil asparagus, but chubby stalks are not right here) that are firm, and look for tips that are tight. Wrinkled spears and blossoming tips are signs of age.
• Cut or break off the woody bottoms -- spears usually have a natural breaking point -- and carefully peel away the skin up to an inch or two below the tip.
• Opt for arborio rice or another round rice that you would use for risotto, but treat it like a pilaf: Warm oil in a saucepan, add the rice and stir it until it's coated. Pour in the wine and enjoy the sound of the sizzle as it hits the pan and starts to bubble. Let the wine cook away before adding the liquid.
• Choose a lightly flavored broth like vegetable. And use a flavorful cheese: Parm, pecorino Romano and asiago are good, but so is cheddar or a blend of cheeses. Because I always have shredded sharp cheddar in the refrigerator, that's normally what I use.
Think of this as a master recipe you can customize as the seasons change. I can't wait until there are garlic scapes to mix into the rice (boil them for just a minute before stirring them in), and, when summer rolls around, corn off the cob. In colder weather, think mushrooms or squash.
For now, I'm doing what my French friends do: eating asparagus early and often.
CHEESY RICE WITH ASPARAGUS
SERVINGS: 8 to 10 servings first-course servings or 4 main-course servings
Although this rice may remind you of risotto, it's actually a cross between a pilaf and boiled rice ordinaire. The last-minute additions of cream and cheese give it the lush texture we love in risotto, without the 30 minutes of stirring.
• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 cup arborio or other round rice typically used for risotto
• 1/4 cup dry white wine
• 3 1/2 cups no-salt-added vegetable broth
• 1 pound medium-thickness asparagus (about 20), trimmed and peeled
• Fine sea salt
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 1 large shallot, trimmed, finely chopped, rinsed in cold water and patted dry
• 2 cloves garlic, trimmed and green germ removed, finely chopped
• 2 ounces (about 2/3 cup) shredded or grated cheese, such as pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, sharp cheddar or a combination
• 1/4 cup heavy cream
• 3 large scallions (trimmed), white and light-green parts only, thinly sliced
• Handful of fresh herbs, such as basil, parsley, chives and/or cilantro, finely chopped
• Freshly ground pepper (white or black)
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the rice and cook, stirring, just until it's glossy. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring, until it has almost evaporated. Add the broth, bring to a boil, stir and cover the pan. Adjust the heat to medium-low so the liquid is barely bubbling; cook undisturbed for 15 to 20 minutes or until the rice is al dente and only a shallow layer of broth remains above the rice. Turn off the heat and allow the rice to finish cooking. When it's properly cooked, there will still be liquid in the pan.
Meanwhile, cut off the asparagus tips (about 2 inches) and reserve; cut the remaining asparagus crosswise into small pieces.
Bring a small saucepan of salted water to a boil over high heat. Drop in the asparagus pieces; cook for 2 minutes; they should still be firm. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and reserve. Drop in the asparagus tips; cook for 2 minutes, then drain and pat dry.
Wipe out the same saucepan, place it over medium-low heat and add the butter. Once the butter has melted, toss in the shallot and garlic; cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes or until translucent. Stir in the cooled asparagus pieces, then remove from the heat. Warm the rice (in its saucepan) over low heat. Stir in the cheese and heavy cream, heating and stirring gently until the cheese melts. Gently stir in the shallot-and-asparagus mixture, scallions and herbs. Season lightly with salt and a generous amount of pepper.
Serve right away, with the reserved asparagus tips alongside, on top or mixed in.
Nutrition per serving (based on 10): 180 calories, 6 g protein, 22 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 130 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar