Recipe: Risotto with Shrimp, Preserved Lemon, Asparagus and Pea

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If you have a lemon, you make lemonade. 

If you have a preserved lemon, you can make just about any damn thing taste a little more interesting. Except lemonade. That would really suck. 

Preserved lemons are a staple of Moroccan cooking, basically just lemons stuffed in a jar with lots of salt and covered with fresh lemon juice, then left to pickle for about a month. The result is a whole new take on lemons--the clean, citrusy flavor is still there, but it's softer, deeper and saltier--like a savory aged lemon rather than a tart fresh one. You only use the peel, though, not the flesh or juice.

Preserved lemons are an essential component of Moroccan cuisine, especially tagines, but it also works in all kinds of dishes, best in stew-like dishes such as risotto. The combination of shrimp, lemon, asparagus and peas in this risotto is a good one, the vegetables contributing a sweetness that plays off against the salty-savory elements of the shrimp and lemon. 

And now, a few words on risotto.  

Like barbecue, it's a very simple dish with very few steps that depend utterly on the highest quality ingredients and absolute precision in execution. Also like barbecue, it's something that can't really be taught through a recipe. You have to make it a few dozen times to recognize whether the heat is too high or too low, whether the rice is absorbing stock as it should, how it looks at every stage of cooking and when it's done. Basically, it's cooking by the seat of your pants, which makes it both frustrating until you get it and hugely satisfying when you finally do. 

Here are a few tips, gleaned from a decade of making risotto and eating both my successes and failures.  

One, buy the best quality rice you can afford. Supermarket Arborio is okay, but for my money Italian Carnaroli is the perfect risotto rice, absorbing more stock and releasing more starch so your risotto has an incredibly creamy texture without the addition of a single teaspoon of cream. 

Two, don't even think about making risotto unless you have a restaurant-quality saucepan. That cheap rolled aluminum shit that most people have fouling their kitchens will only get you a blackened, inedible mess. 

Three--and this is important--ignore recipes that say you should stir risotto constantly. If you want the richest, creamiest risotto possible (which is my goal, at least) you need to stir in each addition of stock for awhile, then let the rice rest. You can actually see the rice get creamier with each minute of the resting process. The ratio of stirring to resting should be about 60-40, maybe 70-30. (I told you this is seat of the pants.)  

And, four, don't bother dirtying another pot by heating up the stock as, again, most cookbooks advise. Just make sure it's at room temperature (not cold) and save the additional cleanup for the cookbook writers. 

And with that, a recipe. . . 

Shrimp, Preserved Lemon, Asparagus and Pea Risotto
1 lb. shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails removed
1 preserved lemon, peel removed and julienned
Asparagus spears (number depends on size), cut in one-inch segments
½ C. cooked peas, fresh or frozen
1 C. Carnaroli rice (or Arborio or Vialone Nano)
¼ C. onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 C. chicken stock, home-made or low-salt canned
½ C. white wine
1 T. lemon juice
2 T. each, olive oil and butter
Salt & pepper to taste 
Cook asparagus in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and cool. Reserve. 

Poach shrimp until just cooked through. Reserve. 

In heavy-bottomed saucepan, saute onion and garlic in olive oil and butter over medium-low heat until translucent. Add rice and saute briefly. Add chicken stock in half-cup increments, stirring to combine with rice, then letting sit, off and on until most of stock is absorbed. Repeat until rice swells up and loses opaque color. Halfway through cooking add julienned preserved lemon. 

Test a grain to see if it's done. It should be firm to the tooth but not chalky. When rice is ready, add asparagus, shrimp, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. If the risotto seems too dry, add more stock. Stir to combine and reheat all ingredients and serve immediately.
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