We’ve been hitting the garden centers hard this past week and planting herbs and flowers like crazy. It’s a frenetic time of the year — new employees at our lodges, getting cabins guest-ready, and keeping one eye open for the return of salmon.
I own several lodges in Southcentral Alaska and that seems a pretty complicated thing, time-management-wise. But for all the hard work and tricky logistics, it comes down to the fact that I get to run three very different kitchens and cultivate three completely different gardens. Even though my lodges are only an hour apart from each other by airplane, the microclimates, elevation, soil, and other factors make the timing such that each garden progresses on a different schedule. It’s as if I can time-travel between micro-seasons all summer long. One plant common to all of my gardens is mint.
It seems like a cliché to bring up the miracle of spring, but really, how is it possible that a bed of mint can make it through all those months in the deeply frozen ground, lying dormant under so many feet of snow? The moment the snow melts, out come those dark and mysterious intensely green shoots reaching skywards. I am nearly certain that anyone in Alaska can successfully grow a bed of mint in the summertime.
At Winterlake Lodge, I have a small rocked-in pathway of mint in my garden so it won’t spread into other beds. The pathway curves and bends just a little and I imagine it to be shaped like a river. On one end is the chocolate-scented mint we combine with real-life chocolate and at the opposite is the orange mint delicious in sorbets. In-between are more pungent peppermint and spearmints that go into iced tea and savory dishes all summer long.
A favorite early spring and summer dish I like to make with mint is lemon and mint risotto. We make this dish sometimes for our guests, but we also serve it often to our hard-working lodge staff.
In Northern Italy, where I tend to spend any Italian-vacation time, Carnaroli rice is the go-to short grain superfine — a term used to define size of grain — rice of choice over the Arborio variety that has been more common here. Carnaroli, which was hybridized in the 1950s, is so popular in Italy because it is just slightly longer than Arborio, has a greater starch content so it will hold its shape, and absorbs more liquid than Arborio. It’s all a subtle point when zooming into the kitchen from the garden to make a quick lunch for the crew, but it might be interesting for you to try different types of rice in making risotto.
Making a good risotto is not simply cooked rice with a bunch of stuff thrown in together. There is a method that must be fairly precisely followed. First, the rice is sautéed in butter (or butter and oil) and usually some onion. This has to be done gently or the grains will harden. Some kind of simmering liquid (chicken, vegetable, or fish stock, wine or a combination of those) is added in a little at a time, in about half to two-thirds-cup increments. Don’t add in more liquid until the rice has absorbed the previous. The rice should cook on even heat so the bottom grains don’t burn or become mushy and top ones are still uncooked. Right at the end, more butter and Parmesan cheese is almost always added. Risotto should be eaten as soon as it is ready. In between, almost anything can be added to a good risotto. I am particular to lemon and asparagus in the springtime. Risotto can become a household dish that is dressed appropriately for different seasons: herbs and citrus in the springtime, rich salmon or halibut in the summer, and mushrooms in the fall.
The following is a favorite recipe for risotto that utilizes our mint from my gardens. Hopefully, by the end of the week, we’ll have all the beds planted and we can celebrate with a nice big platter of risotto.
- 1 bunch asparagus (about one pound)
- About 6-1/2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 small yellow onion, peeled and chopped (about ½ cup)
- 2 stalks celery, trimmed and finely chopped
- 1-1/2 cups short grain Italian rice for risotto (such as Carnaroli or Arborio)
- ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Grated zest of one lemon
- Juice of one lemon
- 1 small bunch of mint
- Blanche the asparagus in a deep sauté pan filled with salted boiling water for about 5 minutes. Remove the asparagus from the water and cut the tips from the stalk of each asparagus. Dice the remaining stalk into small disks.
- Bring the chicken or vegetable stock to a simmer in a medium-sized stockpot.
- In a separate deep-sided sauté pan, heat the oil and butter. Add in the onion and celery and cook over low heat until the onion is soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add in the rice and turn the heat up slightly. Stir the rice constantly so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan but the grains are coated with the oil and butter.
- Begin to add in the hot liquid a ladle at a time, waiting to add additional liquid in until the previous has absorbed. Remember to continue to stir the rice through the process. Continue the liquid-stir-absorb process for about 15 minutes. Add in the reserved diced asparagus stems and continue to add stock to the rice for another five minutes or so.
- Turn the heat off and stir in the Parmesan cheese (Some people add in extra butter at this stage – totally optional). Add in the asparagus tips, the lemon zest, the lemon juice and the mint.