Food & Drink October 22, 2010

Spring Spear

When I was a kid growing up on the East Coast, the green vegetables I saw most often in spring were frozen peas and iceberg lettuce. Not until my semester abroad in scenic Tuscany did I discover asparagus, the emerald spears stacked in wonderful pyramids like works of art in the outdoor markets.

Intrigued, I sought out my new discovery on a ristorante menu in a nearby piazza. When I tasted asparagus sautéed and tossed with fresh tagliatelle pasta, cream and pancetta, Cupid’s arrow shot through my little food lover’s heart. Lured from restaurant to restaurant in hopes of another meeting, I found the mysterious vegetable I had fallen for popping up everywhere: in tossed salads, on pizza, roasted and served alongside roasted pork, encased in aspic atop fresh paté, creamed in soups. What a revelation: This delicious vegetable was also incredibly versatile.

Back home in America asparagus eventually became mainstream, so much so that one can find it sold almost year round. But, as any good gardener knows, vegetables are best in season, so enjoy these green giants of flavor in the spring. After a long, cold winter there is nothing better than the bright, grassy flavor of steamed asparagus with lemon butter.

Historically, Wood River Valley residents gathered their wild asparagus in the Hagerman area, where spring weekends would find them walking up and down ditch banks overflowing with succulent spears. Herbicide spraying and development have done away with that springtime ritual but, fortunately, excellent asparagus is now available at our markets and from local organic growers.

Many people are somewhat intimidated by cooking this vegetable. They’ve seen the special asparagus cookers in kitchen stores and suspect that some strange, ritualistic technique is involved. Not so. Treat it as you would green beans or broccoli—steamed, or boiled for a short time in an uncovered pot with plenty of salted water. To avoid the camouflage effect and ensure bright green stalks for your dish, plunk them into ice water immediately after pulling from the pot, and never overcook.

Roasted Asparagus with Lemon and Garlic

Roasting vegetables of any kind highlights their flavor while maintaining their color and texture. It is also very easy, and the prep of putting the vegetables in a pan with oil and seasonings can be done ahead (but wait to add lemon juice). The most important thing to remember about roasting is to use a very hot oven—between 450-500 degrees—so the natural sugars caramelize and the vegetables cook fast and stay crunchy.

Toss washed asparagus in just enough olive oil (or nut oil) to coat; do not add too much, or they will become greasy. Sprinkle with pepper and kosher salt, and toss with minced garlic. When ready to roast, squeeze the juice of one lemon over the asparagus and toss (zest the lemon before cutting, and reserve the zest for presentation).

Place in a 450-500-degree oven for 10-20 minutes, depending on vegetable thickness and quantity. Taste for seasoning, sprinkle with lemon zest, and serve.

Asparagus Strata
Use any vegetables or meats you wish. We have chosen a combination of asparagus and shiitake mushrooms, but onions and peppers work nicely, as do squash and smoked salmon. Feel free to experiment.
Serves 6

1 T. oil
2 tsp. minced garlic
1 cup chopped mushrooms
12 very thin slices firm sandwich
bread, cut into 3/4" squares
(about 5 cups)
1 cup grated Parmesan
21/2 cups skim milk
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
(about 3 cups)
11/2 tsp. olive oil
3 cups chopped asparagus
4 large whole eggs plus 4 egg whites
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

1. Lightly oil a 13" x 9" x 2" baking casserole.
2. Sauté onion and 1 tsp. garlic in 11/2 tsp. oil in a large pan, stirring over moderate heat until onion is pale gold. Stir in asparagus and mushrooms, add salt and pepper to taste, cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Remove lid and cook until any liquid is absorbed, about 3 minutes.
3. Spread half the bread squares evenly in the baking dish and top with half the vegetable mixture. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup Parmesan and top with remaining bread, vegetables, and cheese.
4. In a bowl, whisk together whole eggs, egg whites, milk, parsley, remaining 1 tsp. garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour evenly over bread and let soak for 1 hour or up to 12 hours refrigerated. Bring to room temperature 20 minutes before cooking.
5. Preheat oven to 375˚.
6. Bake in the middle of the oven for 45-55 minutes, or until puffed and golden.
7. Serve for brunch or with a butter lettuce salad for a light spring dinner.

Spring Vegetable Carbonara
This dish is best made just before serving. Pair it with a rich chardonnay, a salad, and rustic, crusty bread. Serves 6-8

1 lb. fresh or good-quality dried
8 oz. pancetta, chopped into 1/2" chunks
(do not use thin, pre-sliced meat)
1 lb. fresh asparagus, cut on the
diagonal into 1" pieces, then blanched
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
Dash of dry white wine
3 eggs
2 T each chopped dill, parsley,
basil, and rosemary
1 lemon
3/4 cup grated Parmesan
Olive oil or butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground
Black pepper

1. In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, brown the pancetta (about 8-10 minutes).
2. To the browned pancetta, add 3 tablespoons of olive oil or butter, or a combination.
3. Add the shallots and garlic, cooking until just softened, stirring so they do not burn. At this point you can turn off the heat and finish the rest of your meal preparation.
4. Boil a large pot of salted water and cook the fettuccine until al dente. While the noodles are cooking, finish the sauce.
5. To the sauté pan, add the blanched asparagus, peas, half the herbs, salt and pepper. Pour on a dash of wine to deglaze any pancetta brown bits in the bottom of the pan. Stir to combine.
6. When the pasta is cooked, drain and place in pan with vegetables, tossing everything together. If it looks dry, add more olive oil.
7. With the heat turned down to medium, crack both eggs into the center of the pan while stirring constantly to make a creamy sauce. While stirring, add 1/2 cup of Parmesan.
8. Taste for seasoning. Stir in the remaining herbs.
9. Platter and top with the last 1/4 cup of Parmesan.

Orzo pasta salad with asparagus
Serves 6

1 1/2 cups uncooked orzo pasta
12 medium asparagus spears
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
One lemon
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Cook the pasta according to package instructions until al dente. Drain and cool quickly with cold tap water. Set aside in a large bowl.
2. Sauté the minced garlic in the olive oil, keeping heat low so the garlic does not burn. When softened and aromatic, about 4 minutes, remove from heat and cool.
3. Wash the asparagus and slice on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces. Discard the tough stalk ends. Add the asparagus and 1/4 cup salt to a medium pot of boiling water. Cook until just tender, about 6 minutes (cooking time will depend on thickness and freshness of asparagus, as well as altitude).
4. While the asparagus is cooking, fill a large bowl with water and some ice. When the asparagus is done, drain and immediately shock in the ice water. When cold, drain and add to pasta bowl.
5. Add the garlic oil, Parmesan, zest of the lemon and juice of one-half the lemon to the pasta bowl, tossing to coat. Add salt and pepper to taste.

If you are making this a day ahead it is advised to wait to finish seasoning with salt until just before you serve it, and you may also need to dress with a bit more olive oil. Pasta will absorb dressings when allowed to sit for more than 6 hours.
Options: Chopped hardboiled egg, sautéed mushrooms, and thin julienne red pepper are nice additions to this dish.



This article appears in the Fall 2003 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.