By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Mar 26, 2012 at 8:01 AM

Easter is the perfect time to take advantage of fresh seasonal produce like asparagus. But, why serve the same old plain steamed asparagus when you can surprise your guests with a delicious risotto that captures the essence of spring?

The asparagus pesto in this dish is made in the same manner as a traditional basil pesto. Blanched asparagus is pureed with garlic, Romano cheese, toasted pine nuts and olive oil, along with a bit of spinach to intensify its bright green color. Lemon juice is added to pull the flavors together and add a pleasant brightness to the finished pesto.

This delicious spring risotto makes an excellent vegetarian main course or side dish which can be served with a variety of roasted or grilled meats. Leftover asparagus pesto is delicious tossed with cooked pasta, spread on grilled cheese sandwiches, or stirred into potato soup.

Even the leftover risotto is delicious. Dish it up into a bright colored bowl and eat it right out on the patio, alongside the daffodils, while sipping a glass of delicious Savignon Blanc.

Spring Risotto with Asparagus "Pesto"
Serves 4 as vegetarian main course

1 pound of asparagus, trimmed, blanched* and chopped into 1 ½ inch lengths
2 handfuls baby spinach leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2/3 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
3/4 cup toasted pine nuts, divided
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
salt, to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped finely
1 ½ cups Arborio rice
4-5 cups vegetable stock (or chicken stock)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup (or so) asparagus pesto, divided
1/2 cup Romano cheese (plus more to pass), grated

Set aside a handful of asparagus tips and ¼ cup pine nuts for garnish.

First make the pesto: Place the remaining asparagus into a food processor, along with the spinach, garlic, cheese and remaining 1/2 cup of the pine nuts. Pulse until mixture is roughly chopped. Then, with the motor running, drizzle the olive oil into the pesto to loosen the mixture. Continue pureeing until the pesto forms a thick paste that still retains some of its original texture. Add lemon juice and salt, adjusting the seasoning as necessary. Note: You will have more pesto than you need for this recipe. Toss additional pesto with hot pasta for a quick weeknight meal, add to grilled cheese sandwiches or stir into potato soup.

When you are ready to make the risotto, bring the stock to a simmer in saucepan.

In another (large) saucepan or risotto pan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and cook for a few minutes until it begins to turn translucent.

Stir in the rice, being sure to coat all of the grains with oil. Add the wine, and cook until the alcohol flavor is diminished and the rice has absorbed all of the flavorful liquid. Add 1/2 cup of asparagus pesto and stir to incorporate.

Now begin adding the simmering stock approximately 1 or 2 cups at a time, stirring constantly. Each addition of stock should be absorbed before the next addition is made. The entire process will take about 30-35 minutes.

After the last addition of stock, add the remaining asparagus pesto and the Romano cheese. Stir to combine.

Place risotto into a large serving bowl, or individual dishes. Garnish with reserved asparagus tips and pine nuts. Pass additional Romano cheese at the table.

*To blanch asparagus, drop the asparagus spears into a pot of boiling water. Cook for 2-3 minutes, or until the spears are bright green and just barely tender. Drain the asparagus under cold running water to halt the cooking process.

This week, March 26-30, presents five Easter recipes in our Dining section. You'll have the opportunity, via this contest and courtesy of Roundy's, to win the ingredients to create each featured recipe.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.