I recently finished reading Russ Parsons’ How to Pick a Peach for our first book club discussion, and thought it would be fitting to cook a couple of his recipes to enhance the experience. Since the book is sectioned by season, I flipped through the “Spring” recipes for ideas. Right off the bat there was a recipe that appealed to me in the Onions chapter for a grilled cheese with onions. Like me, I’m sure most of you don’t need a recipe for grilled cheese; for me the recipe was more a reminder of how great a simple combo like cheese and onions can be. He dresses it up a bit by using a fancy cheese, and dressing the onions in a little champagne vinegar and parsley. The other recipe I chose, Asparagus-Shrimp risotto, was dictated by the fact that asparagus is just about the only seasonal Michigan produce you can get in the farmers’ markets right now (with the exception of rhubarb, which was not in the book).
Parsons’ grilled cheese is meant to be cut into strips and served as an appetizer with wine or (as he suggests) Champagne. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to eschew an opportunity to drink Champagne, but the only chance I had to make this was at lunch, alone, and seeing as how I had other chores to do that day, the Champagne was not an option. Anyhow, the basics are: white bread with the crusts trimmed (I left mine on), very thinly sliced sweet onions (Vidalia, Walla Walla, whatever) marinated in a splash of Champagne vinegar (I used white wine vinegar), chopped parsley, and some soft cheese (he suggests Taleggio, Brie or Taleme; I used Fontina). Something I learned from the book is that sweet onions aren’t any “sweeter” than cooking onions; they just contain much less of the sulfurous compound that makes onions taste oniony. It’s really kind of pointless to even cook with them, since what little onion flavor they have dissipates with cooking. My Vidalias were so mild that I put an entire 1/2 onion on my sandwich and for my taste, it still could have used more onion flavor. I was also a little disappointed in the Fontina; despite the fancy Euro name, it tasted almost exactly like Monterey Jack (but of course cost more). I think a slightly more assertive cheese would be my preference if I made this again. Either that, or I’d put a little Dijon mustard on it. I also added a sprinkle of salt and pepper to my onions before putting them on the sandwich. With a green salad, it was a simple but satisfying lunch, if not altogether nutritious.
The Asparagus-Shrimp risotto was also familiar ground, but I thought I would try his method of making a simple, light stock out of the trimmings rather than use the usual chicken stock. I have to say, though, 1/4 lb shrimp does not make for a heck of a lot of shrimp shells, so don’t expect a pronounced seafood flavor. I actually save shrimp shells in the freezer for occasions such as this, though, so I was able to amp it up a little. (I used more than 1/4 lb shrimp, too- more like 1/3 or 1/2 lb.)
You probably know the drill with making risotto, but to sum up the recipe: 2 cups arborio rice, 1 1/4 lb asparagus (skinny works well for this recipe), 1/4 lb shrimp (or more), 1 onion, 9 cups H2O, 1/2 c dry white wine, 4 tbs butter, a few tbs Parmigiano. Trim the asparagus, reserve the tips and cut the stems into 1/3-inch rounds. Dice the onion and shell the shrimp; put the trimmings from the above ingredients into a stockpot with the water and simmer for at least 30 minutes. Melt 3 tbs butter in a large skillet and add the asparagus stems and onion and cook until onion begins to soften; add 2 cups arborio rice and cook another 5 min or so. Add wine and cook until evaporated. Start adding the hot stock, about 3 ladles’ worth at a time, ladling it through a strainer, stirring as it cooks down, repeating the process as the stock gets absorbed. Before the final addition of stock, add the raw shrimp and asparagus tips. I like to cut each shrimp into 3 or 4 pieces, so that it’s more evenly distributed through the risotto, but also so it cooks in the same time as the asparagus tips. Since the stock is unsalted, you’ll need to add a fair amount of salt, which you can do at this stage. According to Parsons, your result should be fairly soupy (it does tend to thicken up a bit as it sits). Add the final tbs butter and the cheese, and enjoy with a green salad (I made a lemon-Dijon- Parmigiano vinaigrette) and a crisp glass of white.