Monthly Archives: April 2010

Asparagus Season! Asparagus Season!

In my mind, the argument for eating seasonally and locally can be summed up in one word: Asparagus.

I try to eat as locally as possible across the board, and certainly all foods taste better the fresher they are. Even the fastest shipping methods can alter the flavor and texture of all veggies for sure, but none quite so much as my beloved asparagus. Asparagus is where I truly draw the line at eating out of season, refusing to purchase it in January, because it’s simply a shell of the real, most succulent deal, having been shipped thousands of miles from Chile or Argentina.

This refusal to eat it year-round results in a yearning that lasts most of the year and an almost Pavlovian link for me between spring and asparagus. It is one of the earliest vegetables to arrive at the scene, on the heels of wild ramps, just before fresh peas sing their early summer song, and I begin to have asparagus dreams at the earliest sign of winter’s end, salivating like Pavlov’s dogs (with apologies for that image). Spring came early this year, bringing warm days and bare legs nearly two months before it was time for asparagus to peek out of the ground. The asparagus craving started early, too, spurred on by summery days and sandals, but the asparagus itself did not show up at the farmer’s market in force until yesterday.

A fellow market-going lady standing over the bunches smiled at me when I arrived at the Grand Army greenmarket, exclaimed that it seemed pricey. I told her what I have just told you, that I love it deeply, that I only eat it now, that it’s in a little early and that larger bunches may be available soon for that same price, but that she ought to snatch some up. She asked how to pick the best bunches, if she should be looking for tight asparagus tips, if fat or thin was better. I told her that yes, tight tips were the best sign, but that it was so early, everything before us so brand new, that it was all in good shape (the selection will surely become more disparate as the season progresses). I told her that my momma raised me to love the fat, juicy stalks the best, but that thickness is not an indication of tenderness. I explained that I like to get a range of thicknesses, that my favorite thing is to roast the asparagus at a high heat, that the thicker stalks get sublimely juicy while the thinner wilt quickly and caramelize, that the variety is wonderful. And then I bought 3 bunches of asparagus, along with an extremely affordable little bundle of arugula, and marched proudly home.

I had gone to the market early, just after rolling out of bed, in hopes of snatching up some veggies before they were snatched up by someone else, so I had not yet had breakfast. I spent a good portion of my walk home from the market thinking about the brunch applications of asparagus. I opted to roast asparagus, as is my wont, and to serve it over soft polenta with poached eggs.

The first step in asparagus preparation is to soak it. I just plug up my sink and let it soak there, being sure to swish it around lots. Asparagus likes to grow in sandy soil, and its bud-like tips are perfect for holding onto grit. Soak and clean the asparagus and trim the bottom ends. You can do this either with a paring knife, slicing off the bottom end and peeling the tough layers from the base, or simply by grasping the asparagus with one hand in the middle of the stalk, the other at the very bottom, and snapping it. It will break at the junction between tender, tasty stalk and tough end.

Preheat your oven to 400º or a little higher, lay your asparagus out in a single layer on a sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt.

Roast the asparagus for 8 minutes or so, then flip it over by jostling the pan or rolling the stalks over with a spatula, and cook for another 8 minutes, until it feels tender when pierced with a fork. Take it out of the oven, and squeeze fresh lemon juice all over it. Ordinarily, I would simply eat it with my fingers standing at the counter, or, if feeling fancy, transfer it to a plate and eat it with my fingers sitting in a chair. Because it was breakfast time, I spooned soft, sage-and-pecorino-laced polenta into dishes, laid the asparagus over it, and topped with poached eggs. It was a richer brunch than I usually serve up, but an appropriately lavish way to welcome asparagus season, to open up to spring.

For those of you who doubt the superiority of local over non-local foods, I urge you to do a taste test today, while asparagus season is still in swing. Get yourself to a farmer’s market during this short growing season, get some super fresh asparagus, and compare it to the non-local stuff that is surely still available in your supermarket. You’ll surely see what the fuss is about.

Cornbread Stuffing

As mentioned in the previous post, stuffing is a big part of the reason we do faux Thanksgiving. Shawn loves it. Turns out I love it, too. As a vegetarian, I was not raised on stuffing — there just weren’t many opportunities to include it in our meals, and I never missed it. When it came time to host our own Thanksgiving a few years ago, Shawn shyly asked if we could have some. I said that of course we could, and then realized that I didn’t even know what was in stuffing. Bread for sure, some veggies, some broth. But how much bread, and were there eggs in it? Was it like a big, flat strata? I turned to the internet for guidance.

Various online forums informed me that some people use eggs, others do not. Some people add sausage, some just veggies. Some people use stale bread, others use toast. Basically, I learned that anything goes. I decided not to use eggs, because I wanted to make something more dense than fluffy. The basic rules for stuffing that I discerned were these:

  1. Use dry bread — either stale or toasted — so that it can better absorb surrounding flavors
  2. Make sure you have tasty flavors for said dry bread to absorb
  3. Use enough broth to bind it together

Very, very basic, right? Shawn loves sage, and I loved the idea of cornbread stuffing, so I used those ingredients as a starting point. I wanted more structure to the stuffing than cornbread alone would provide, so I decided to use white bread as the base with cornbread to complement. I added some other Thanksgiving-appropriate ingredients, and I came up with the best stuffing I have ever had. A small feat, really, as I had never actually had good stuffing, but it was delicious, and it has been popular with everyone who’s had it, the first thing in the faux Thanksgiving spread to vanish. Make some for your next feast, and let me know how it holds up to other recipes.

Leek and Cornbread Stuffing Recipe

What Goes In:

  • 1 loaf unsliced white bread (I’ve used both baguette and Italian, and I’ve added a little wheat bread on occasion — just make sure it’s real bread with a solid crust, as opposed to smushy packaged sandwich bread)
  • 2 big chunks of cornbread — enough to make about 3 cups when crumbled (I bought mine for the sake of simplicity)
  • Fresh sage
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 3 small or 2 large leeks, quartered lengthwise and chopped into 1/2 inch or so pieces
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3 stalks celery, finely diced
  • 2-3 big handfuls of pecans, toasted and chopped
  • 2-3 big handfuls dried cranberries
  • veggie broth — 4 cups or so? Depends on your bread
  • salt ‘n pepper

What to Do:

  1. A day or two before stuffing time, cut your bread into 1 inch cubes. Crumble cornbread. Toss it all in a bowl with some sage and let it sit, exposed to the air, for a day or two. The sage flavor will seep into the bread, and the bread will dry out enough for your stuffing.
  2. Sauté leeks in 3 Tbsp. butter until soft. Add garlic and celery and cook for a minute more — you still want some crunch in the celery.
  3. Add leeks to bread cubes. In the same pan that you used for leeks, melt remaining Tbsp. of butter and add lots of chopped sage. Get a little sizzle going while you toast your pecans.
  4. Swirl toasted pecans in the butter for a quick moment, and then add it all to the bread and leeks.
  5. Toss in some dried cranberries, enough to get a pleasing mix of colors.
  6. Add enough broth to make it sticky. Most of your crumbled cornbread will melt into kind of a sauce for the other cubes. Keep adding broth until everything is moist.
  7. Press into a 9×13 cake pan, or whatever you have that is comparable, cover with foil, and bake at 375° for half an hour or so. Realistically, if you’re doing Thanksgiving, you may need to have to oven on a different temperature for another recipe. This stuffing is very versatile — just check it earlier if the temperature is higher, and let it go a little longer if the temperature is lower. Take the foil off when the stuffing seems set in the middle, and let it cook another 10 minutes or so to crisp up.

Here’s my stuffing, all mixed up, before baking:

There are no “after” photos as the afternoon light turned into evening light, and people showed up, and eating started. But it was not bad to look at, and it was pretty good to eat.

Faux Holiday, Real Thanks

Last year, Shawn and I hosted our first faux Thanksgiving. We had hosted the real deal the year before, and it had felt a little like playing house in the best of ways, card tables set up in our living room (we are lacking a dining room) with my family piled around, and, as much as I loved going home to Momma’s last Thanksgiving, I missed the opportunity to cook and cook in my own kitchen, a slightly different ambition. And, while my Momma’s vegetarian Thanksgiving is inarguably the best vegetarian Thanksgiving around, cooking in our own little home provided an opportunity for some slight menu variations incorporating some of Shawn’s favorite things ever: a slightly adapted version of Bryanna’s fake turkey and stuffing.

Late last February, in the dark and dragging days of winter, some friends came over to feast. One friend who was in the same boat as me (having hosted the previous year, missing cooking) cooked a duck for the meat eaters. Another brought an amazing carrot soufflé. I cooked all our favorite Thanksgiving things, and we all drank wine, and there was much merriment. It was great to have the opportunity to cook and to give thanks with friends in a family-style setting, especially in those short days when winter had just about worn out its welcome. I promised Shawn we would do it this year, too.

Spring came early this year, then disappeared, then experienced a resurgence. The strongest effect of the earliest sunshiney days on me, personally, is that I found myself practically skipping off to the farmer’s market every week, eager to behold the springy delights that had surely sprung up into these warm days, ultimately crushed to find only last season’s overwintered apples kicking around. This weather has stirred a deep, almost crazy-making asparagus craving in me, and, while I would have preferred lemony roasted asparagus to sagey roasted carrots (I would prefer lemony roasted asparagus to pretty much anything these days), there was none, and this year’s faux Thanksgiving took on another level of meaning: celebrating overwintered (and the non-local, shipped up variety that I try to avoid) vegetables, autumnal bounty carrying us into these early days of spring.

Here is what we made:

  • Mustardy cheddar gougeres
  • Green salad with pecans, market apples, and blue cheese
  • Garlic mashed potatoes
  • Momma’s mushroom gravy (the best chunky veggie gravy ever — a recipe will appear here one of these days)
  • Fake turkey (but with more flavor, done up in the slow-cooker)
  • Roasted carrots, celery, pearl onions
  • Cornbread stuffing (recipe to follow)
  • Sweet potato pie
  • St. Louis gooey butter cake (So! Much! Butter!!)

It was one of my favorite parties in recent memory, due largely to the fact that, finding myself slightly overwhelmed with cooking tasks and suspecting that I had bitten off more than I could chew a few hours before party time, I was able to successfully remind myself that only my friends would be coming, that I love cooking with my friends, that none of the lovely people slated to arrive would take issue with having a drink and standing, chatting, at the kitchen island while I scurried around. This is surely true of all our parties, but letting that realization sink in made the day of preparation and the party that followed exponentially more joyful for me.

Friends came bearing plants that brought wonderful, springy smells into our home. They mixed drinks, scooped gougeres, chopped mushrooms (thanks, Gary), told stories, ate and ate, paid compliments, and, at the end of the night, Shawn and Gary somehow managed to clean every last dish, pot, and pan that had been used, thus marking the first time in my adult life that I have hosted a party and woken up to a spic and span apartment the next day. I cannot overstate how wonderful it was to see that stove top gleaming in the morning sun, all that clear counter space. And thus, for the second year running, faux Thanksgiving provided many small opportunities for gratitude. In these early spring days, I am grateful for fall foods, dear friends, clean dishes, and the chance to create tradition and celebration at any time of year.

I am also extremely grateful that, in the week  and a half following faux Thanksgiving, I have attended a barbecue, eaten ramps, visited flowering trees at the botanical gardens, and taken many a long and breezy stroll. Spring is springing, the CSA is starting soon, and fresh asparagus is right around the corner!