May 26, 2014

Asparagus! Now!

Photo by Mette Nielsen

There is a moment, just before the lilacs open, that the early asparagus appear at the farmers market. Tied in bundles these first mauve tipped spears are a delicate confirmation that the spring is finally here. There may still be a crust of snow in the shadiest part of the garden, but there is really no turning back.

Asparagus!. Soon as I get home with my bundles, the first batch is boiled quickly until bright green, then served, per my grandmother's instructions, with plenty of melted butter for dipping. She insisted the spears be presented on a white linen napkin, but I'm always too eager for such niceties. I try to resist devouring them standing at the counter, and at least sit down, attentive to their decidedly grassy flavor. As the season progresses, the spears will be fatter, more succulent, to grace every dinner -- grilled and served with lemon and grated Parmesan, sauteed with shallots for a light creamy pasta, or tossed into a faro salad. By mid-June, there will be but a few spears left, some woody and tough. But by then we will have moved along to early tomatoes, raspberries and summer things.

When you bring your asparagus home, if you're not going to cook them right away, trim the bottoms of the stalks to stand up in a cup or vase, as you would flowers, and store in the refrigerator. Then, just before cooking, snap the ends off where they are no longer pliable.

To blanch, drop the spears into rapidly boiling water and cook until they turn bright green, then drain right away.

To sautee, toss them raw into a pan with a little butter, roll, cover and "butter steam" until tender.

To grill, place them over indirect heat and roll until just tender and nicely charred.

Season asparagus with:
Lemon juice and shaved Parmesan
Melted butter and chopped tarragon
Chopped cooked bacon
Orange zest and freshly chopped mint
Extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Dark sesame oil and a splash of rice wine vinegar

May 5, 2014

Stalks and Eats

photo by Mette Nielsen


My grandmother grew rhubarb in her lush New Jersey garden, those sturdy shoots were the first to appear with the delicate chives. Her rhubarb cobbler wore a dense, butter-rich crumb crust and she stewed it into tangy sauce for plain vanilla ice cream. What's more, she made a terrific rhubarb lemonade and a wonderful glaze for chicken. I learned there's more to rhubarb than dessert. As those valiant stalks appear in my garden and are piled on farmers market stalls, I become that happy kid, joyfully snipping fat stalks to turn into something deliciously pink.

Tangy Ginger Rhubarb Sauce
Makes 2 cups
Great on chicken or pork

3 cups chopped rhubarb, about 1 pound
1/4 cup fresh orange juice or dry white wine
3 tablespoons fresh grated ginger
About 1/4 cup sugar, more or less to taste

Put all of the ingredients into a medium pot and simmer until the rhubarb is just soft. Add a little of the sugar and then add more to taste. It shouldn't be too sweet!

Rhubarb Lemonade
Makes 1 quart
This is great with a few sprigs of mint and even better with a couple of shots of vodka

3 cups chopped rhubarb, about 1 pound
1 quart cold water
1/2 or more sugar or honey, to taste
Fresh mint for garnish

Put the rhubarb into a glass pitcher and cover with about 1 quart of water. Allow to steep overnight. Strain off the rhubarb. Sweeten with the sugar or honey to taste. Serve over ice with fresh mint for garnish and a splash of vodka (if you like).