Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Asparagus: A Taste of Springtime

Asparagus is the very essence of Springtime — the first crop of the season to emerge from the soil after a long cold winter. Found in markets everywhere at the moment, they're cheap and plentiful. Grilled on the BBQ, pureed as a soup, baked in a tart, or added to risotto, there are so many ways to cook asparagus, it's a great time of the year to make the most of the deliciously sweet and tender spears and get cooking. Whenever you buy asparagus, look for smooth, glossy-skinned spears with tight heads, and freshly cut ends. When you get your precious spears home, stand them upright in a dish filled with about 2-inches of water, like you would with a small bunch of flowers. 

There are a number of ways to prepare Asparagus, but make sure you take off the bottom of the stalk, which can be hard and woody. A neat trick is to snap off the end of one spear, and where it breaks, will delineate the tender top from the hard bottom. Then you can line up the rest of the bunch and cut off the bottoms in line with the one that snapped naturally, then all of the asparagus will have nice neat ends. And if they're thick, peel them — you'll have lovely tender asparagus every time. 

Asparagus Soup with Croutons and Chives
Serves 6

2 bunches asparagus (about 2 pounds)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 medium/large leeks
2 cups of heavy cream
2 cups water
Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
2 tsp finely chopped chives (or more, they really boost the soup)
Croutons (see recipe below)

Trim the tough bottom parts off of the asparagus and cut the remainder of the spears into 1-inch pieces.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and starting to brown, about 5-10 minutes.

Add the cream, 2 cups of water, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Increase heat and bring liquid to boil. Add the asparagus, lower to a simmer, and cook until the asparagus is tender but still quite green. Then add the lemon juice and puree the soup in a blender or food processer

Season to taste, and garnish the soup with the croutons and chives.

Makes 1 cup

3 thick slices of leftover baguette
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp herbes de provence
2 pinches sea salt

Cut the bread into generous 1/2" cubes — about 1 cup. Heat olive oil in a skillet over low heat. Add the bread cubes, season with herbes de provence salt, and toss to coat the flavored oil. Using a spatula, tossing occasionally until they're golden brown and crunchy, about 10-15 minutes. These are excellent on salads too!

Asparagus, Mushroom & Swiss Cheese Tart
Serves 6-8


2 cups flour
1 stick unsalted butter
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp light olive oil
6 tbsp cold water
egg wash

Pulse the flour, butter, oil and salt in a processor until crumbly. Add the water and pulse a few times until it comes together. Carefully upturn the dough out onto a board and push it together gently, then roll into the shape of your pan. My tart pan has a removable bottom for easy serving. Brush egg wash on the edges and bake at 400 for 10 minutes. Let cool off a bit while you make the filling.

4 eggs
1 cup milk
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 chopped onion
10 oz package sliced Cremini or button mushrooms
1 clove chopped garlic
1 tbsp chopped basil
1/2 cup grated Swiss cheese
1 bunch very thin asparagus

Mix eggs, milk and parmesan together in a bowl and set aside. In a pan, saute the onions, garlic and mushrooms until soft. Add the basil or any other herbs and remove from heat.

Put mushroom mixture onto crust. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with grated cheese. Pour egg mixture over that. Arrange the asparagus in a starburst pattern, with the heads pointing outwards. You may have to trim the asparagus to fit your pan. Bake at 350°F for 45-60 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Roasted Asparagus
Serves 8

2 lb fresh asparagus

2 tbsp good olive oil
1/2 lemon
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F. Break off the tough ends of the asparagus and, if they're thick, peel them. Place the asparagus on a foil lined baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, then toss to coat the asparagus completely. Spread the asparagus in a single layer and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Roast the asparagus for 25 minutes, until tender but still crisp. Squeeze a little lemon juice overtop and serve with a lashing of grated pecorino or parmesan to make the dish even more yummy.