asparagus

First spring asparagus

Joan Dye Gussow still cooks asparagus the way her mother taught her 40-plus years ago – “sliced on a steep diagonal and sautéed in olive oil” – as she described to a conference of eager listeners in a hotel ballroom in Santa Barbara in January. Gussow had a lot to say to the Edible Institute, and I even wrote a lot of it down, but it was this single comment about asparagus that really stuck with me.

That fact alone should make all public speakers paralyzed with fear of their simultaneous power and utter lack of control.

My take-away, as the magazine editors like to say, was that cooking the same thing over and over is human and natural and good. That it can be profound. It is not necessary to seek out new food experiences to be extremely, deeply, devotedly interested in food. I will feel no shame about the fact that I cook this sautéed asparagus – putting a bit of oil in the pan, tossing in minced garlic and ginger to sizzle, adding asparagus and chopped green onion, sprinkling on some salt, stirring the whole thing up, covering the pan until the asparagus is a bit tender – over and over and over again every spring (frequently tossing it onto a bowl of rice with a bit of pork alongside) and expect my family to be not just grateful but exuberantly so.

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Warm asparagus and cabbage salad

Whenever my dashing husband and I find ourselves in the happy position of being able to go out for a quick meal together – which, let’s be honest, just isn’t that often – we head over to Piccino an almost embarrassing percentage of the time. It’s close, it’s easy, it’s delicious, it’s no big deal while also being insanely pleasant.

We darted over there for an early dinner the other night when our son was at a friend’s house for his own last-minute dinner plans.

One thing I love about their salads is they are never quite what you expect, despite the ample menu description. I suppose this would annoy some people, but it fits my eating out strategy perfectly. I eat a lot of good food. Or, rather, a lot of the food I eat is good. I don’t worry too much about whether any given dish is going to be good – at this point I’m often looking to be surprised, if only a bit, when I eat out. This salad did that. Who, as my dad might say, would have thought?

Warm asparagus and cabbage salad

The key to the success of this dish is to use a cast iron frying pan. It gets nice and hot and gives the cabbage and asparagus a bit of a charred edge.

1 egg

3 shallots

Vegetable oil

1/2 head Savoy cabbage, chopped or shredded

1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and sliced on the diagonal

2 teaspoon lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the egg in a pot and cover with water. bring to a boil, cover, take off the heat and let sit 14 minutes. Drain and peel the egg under cool running water. Set aside.

Peel shallots and slice them.

Heat a thick layer (almost 1/4 inch) of vegetable oil in a cast iron pan over high heat. Add shallots and fry until they are browned and stop sizzling so swiftly. Lift shallots out of the oil and drain on a layer of paper towels. Set shallots aside. Pour out any excess oil from the pan.

Return pan, with its now-scant covering of oil, to the heat. Add cabbage, sprinkle with about 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring frequently, until it wilts and starts to brown. Lift cabbage out of the pan and transfer to a wide shallow bowl.

Add asparagus to the pan, sprinkle with salt and cook, stirring often, until tender and starting to char on the edges. Add to the cabbage, sprinkle with lemon juice, and toss to combine. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.

Add fried shallots and toss to combine. Divide onto serving plates or serve family style – but first finely chop or shred the egg and use it to garnish the salad.

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Spring risotto

Delicate green spring vegetables – the asparagus, the peas, the fava beans – are plentiful, but our San Francisco spring is not keeping pace. Lots of gray and rain and chilly wind and not as much sunshine and clear days as we’re used to this time of year. It’s hard to get excited about simply steamed asparagus with aïoli when I’m chilled to the bone.

A big warm bowl of creamy risotto, though? That I can tuck into with glee.

Spring risotto

Go ahead and play around with the proportions of veggies here – nothing’s set in stone. Add some chopped fennel in with the green garlic, use spring onions instead of green garlic, add mint or dill or chervil at the end.You will find plenty of risotto recipes than demand that you stir the rice constantly. This is not one of them.

1 to 2 pounds fava beans

1/2 pound sweet peas/garden peas/English peas

1/2 bunch asparagus

2 green garlics

5 cups broth (I use homemade chicken stock – if you used commercial broth dilute 4 cups of it with 1 cup of water)

2 Tablespoons butter

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1 cup aborio rice

About 3/4 cup freshly shredded not-super-aged Pecorino cheese

First things first – and experience spring cooks know what this is going to be – you need to double shell the fava beans (I even have this step-by-step guide on how to do it!). I’m sorry. It really is a complete pain if you’re not in the mood to slowly but surely work your way through those beans. Grab the phone, put on the radio, have a chat, or just take a moment and have a little day dream while your hands and eyes are busy.

Set the shelled, blanched, and shelled favas aside.

Shell the peas – doesn’t that seem like a breeze after the favas? – and set them aside with the favas.

Snap the asparagus spears where they break naturally and discard the ends. Cut the asparagus into relatively thin, angled slices, leaving the 1-inch to 2-inch tips intact. Set aside.

Cut off the root ends off the green garlics. Cut the white and light green part of the stalks in half lengthwise – the darker green top will hold the whole things together. Chop the white and light green parts. Reserve the dark green tops for making stock, if you’re so inclined.

Put the broth in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Keep it at a very low simmer.

Meanwhile, heat another medium-ish saucepan over medium high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter and the olive oil. When the butter is melted and stops foaming, add the chopped green garlic and the salt. Cook, stirring, until the green garlic is wilted, about 2 minutes.

Add the rice and stir to completely coat it with the butter and oil. Cook, stirring until the opaque rice grains turn a bit translucent around the edges.

Add about a cup of the warm broth to the rice and cook, stirring as you like. Adjust teh heat so that when you’re not stirring the mixture simmers a bit but doesn’t boil or get too excited. When most of the broth is absorbed – when you can see the bottom of the pot for a few seconds when you stir because the mixture is thicker than the broth – add another 1/2 cup broth. Continue cooking, with some stirring, and adding 1/2 cup of broth at a time until the rice is almost tender to the bite but still has a kernel of uncooked-ness in the center – it took mine a bit over 15 minutes to get there.

Add the asparagus and more broth and continue cooking and stirring and adding broth as needed until the asparagus is almost done and the rice is al dente – tender but with structure to each grain. Add the peas and fava beans.

Continue cooking, adding a bit more broth and stirring, until the peas and beans are warm, just a minute or two. Stir in the cheese and remaining tablespoon of butter and taste – add more salt if you want. We found more cheese on top and some freshly ground black pepper was tasty indeed. As mentioned above, a bit of chopped spring herbs would be lovely too.

We had ours with a boiled egg on the side – we have all these picture-perfect pastured eggs in the house and they are difficult to resist. I meant to soft boil them – start in cold water, bring to a boil, cover, remove from heat, let sit exactly three minutes, remove from hot water, and peel. But the risotto timing with the rice and vegetables and whatnot had the bulk of my attention and the eggs sat around on the counter after I took them from their hot water bath and kept cooking and they weren’t soft-boiled at all. They were, however, delicious and super-spring-y with the risotto.

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Rice bowl

This is for all the lovelies out there just trying to get a tasty dinner on the table – you know who you are. It isn’t fancy, but the bright ginger, fresh asparagus, rich pork, and hearty brown rice make for a deeply satisfying dinner after a long, hard day. You start cooking the pork and asparagus while the rice and egg cook, so while there is sort of a lot going on at once, much of it is hands-off.

Rice bowl

This – and by “this” I mean a bowl of rice with stuff on it – is a favorite around our house. I’m partial to the ground pork and asparagus combo, but greens, butternut squash, and minced chicken has its fans, as does the tofu, peas, and spinach combo I’ve broken out on occasion.

2  cups  short-grain brown rice

1/2  teaspoon  salt

4  eggs (optional)

1  pound  ground pork

1/2  cup  sake or white wine (optional)

2  tablespoons tamari or soy sauce, plus more to taste and/or for serving

2  bunches asparagus or similar amount (lots) of your favorite vegetable

1  piece ginger, about 4 in. long

3  cloves garlic

8  green onions

2  tablespoons  vegetable oil, divided

Cilantro for garnishing

Bring 4 cups water, the rice, and the salt to a boil in a medium saucepan, cover, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until tender to the bite, about 35 minutes. Or, do as I do and set it all up in a rice cooker and forget all about it.

While the rice is cooking, cook everything else. First things first: Hard boil the eggs. I use Julia Child’s method and it turns out a perfect egg every single goddamn time: put eggs in a medium sauce pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling – not just tiny bubbles along the edges of the pan, but big bubbles coming up all over – cover the pan, turn off the heat, and let sit 14 minutes. Drain and peel the eggs under cool running water. Slice and set aside.

While the eggs are cooking, put the pork in a medium bowl and pour the sake or white wine and the tamari or soy sauce over it. Mix gently and let sit until you’re done with the eggs.

If you still have some time waiting for the eggs, snap off the woody ends of the asparagus and cut the spears into bite-size pieces (or peel/chop/prep whatever vegetable you’re using).

Now grate the ginger, mince the garlic, and chop the green onions.

Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon of the oil and the pork and cook, stirring once in a while, until the pork is about half-way cooked – some is cooked through and some isn’t and none if it is starting to brown yet. Add 3/4 of the grated ginger. Stir in the ginger and cook until the pork is cooked through and starting to get brown in some spots.

Transfer the pork to a bowl or plate and cover to keep warm. Return the pan to the stove and add the remaining tablespoon of oil, the remaining ginger, garlic, and green onions. Cook, stirring, until the fragrances blend, about a minute. Add the asparagus, stir to combine, add 1/4 cup of water, cover, and cook until the asparagus is tender, about 4 minutes (other vegetables may take longer).

While the asparagus cooks, chop or mince the cilantro.

The rice should be done now. Divide the rice between four deep cereal or chili bowls. Top with asparagus, pork, and a sliced hard boiled egg. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve with tamari or soy sauce on the side for people to add to taste. We put various hot sauces and hoisin on the table at our house, too.

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