Hungry Hollow Asparagus

Undoubtedly, asparagus is my favorite spring vegetable. At this time of year I always look for it at the Farmers’ Market. There was fresh asparagus at the market on Sunday but I didn’t buy it. Instead, I stopped at my neighborhood grocery store and  bought some. I didn’t buy it there because the price was better. It was actually about the same. I bought it because it was from Durst Organic Growers, local fourth generation farmers from the “Hungry Hollow” area at the mouth of the Capay Valley.

Capay Valley, about 45 miles from where I now live, is where I lived during my last two years of High School. We had a 40-acre Almond ranch there and the elementary and high School, in Esparto is where all the kids from up-the-valley and all the areas surrounding Esparto went. Some kids spent an hour on the bus getting to school and another getting home. The buses carried both elementary and high school (there was no middle or Jr. High) kids, so if you were from a large family like me, you rode to school on the same bus as your brothers and sisters.  The schools were very small by today’s standards, about a couple hundred of us at the high school and that’s probably being generous. My senior class had thirty-two. It was a wonderful place to live in those days, a little like Mayberry RFD. The Durst kids went to school with my younger sisters. Some of their cousins were in my class. In small towns everybody is somebody’s cousin, unless like me, you moved there.  So maybe it was nostalgia that brought me to buy their asparagus. But really, I don’t think nostalgia was the reason. Durst Organic Growers bring beautiful products to market so while nostalgia may have played some small part in my choice I was really just looking for the very best asparagus available. The only asparagus I’ve had that beat theirs was some wild asparagus I found growing in a meadow along a trail where I was walking. It was so beautiful, some of the spears had leafed out into their fern-like foliage and tucked below it were perfectly shaped spears, some  about 7 inches tall and no bigger around than a pencil. The temptation was too great. I had to to taste this perfection.  I broke off the spears and ate them, slowly, one by one, relishing their taste and texture. They were sheer heaven.  I don’t know what there is about foraging food but to me it always tastes much better than anything I can buy.

To celebrate my asparagus bounty I grilled some and added it to a penne pasta recipe I came across on one of my recent digs (through recipe clippings of which I have more than I probably need). This is not heavy, although with all that cream one would think it would be. I didn’t feel it over whelmed the vegetables. I could still taste their bright spring flavors.

Penne with Asparagus, Peas, Mushrooms & Cream

8 – 10 servings

1 lb thin asparagus

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for grilling

Salt and freshly ground pepper

3 medium shallots, minced

¾ pound shitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps thinly sliced

2 ¼ cups heavy cream

1 ½ lbs penne rigate

1 ½ cups fresh or frozen baby peas (if frozen thaw them before using)

¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. Preheat a cast-iron grill pan. Brush the asparagus with olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper. Grill the asparagus over high heat, turning until it is lightly charred and very tender, about 6 minutes. Cut the asparagus to 1-inch lengths. (I used my BBQ instead of the cast-iron grill pan)

2. In a very large, deep skillet, heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the shallots and cook, stirring once or twice until the mushrooms are golden and tender, about 8 minutes. Add the cream and bring to a boil. Simmer until slightly reduced, about 4 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving ¾ cup of the cooking water.

4. Add the pasta to the skillet along with the asparagus, peas and grated cheese and toss well. Add the reserved pasta water and simmer, tossing, until the pasta is nicely coated. Season the pasta with salt and pepper and stir in the parsley. Serve right away.

More asparagus ideas from Annie:

Grill’n Between Storms

Early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans Prized Asparagus. Me too.

Slow Post for a Quick Stir-Fry

Slow Post For A Quick Stir-Fry

There is much talk these days about “slow food”, but this is about “slow posts”. I have been trying for over a week to get this posted. I didn’t have trouble getting to the Farmers’ Market to shop, that’s part of my Sunday routine. I bought the shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, scallions, and more green garlic so I could try a recipe I had found for Ginger Fried Rice. I made the recipe. It was delicious. I even got photos taken but what didn’t happen was finding the time to write and put the words and photos together. I’m sometimes amazed how long it takes.  Do you have weeks where it seems like you go from Monday to Friday in just one day instead of five?

Shiitake mushrooms are, in my opinion, simply the best. I love the flavor and the texture finding them even meatier than a Portabella. I guess the edge the Portabella has is its size. I’ve never seen a Shiitake that comes even close to the Portabella in size and I’ve never tasted a Portabella that comes close in flavor to the Shiitake.

Also known, as Chinese black mushroom and black forest mushroom, shiitake are the second most cultivated mushroom in the world. They also have an ancient history being recorded in Japan back to AD 199 and in China there are written records of them during the Sung Dynasty (AD 960-1127). During the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644), they were prized not only as a food but also as a remedy for upper respiratory diseases, poor blood circulation, liver trouble, exhaustion and weakness, and to boost life energy and prevent premature aging. Today they are still touted for their curative properties and extracts from the mushroom and sometimes the whole dried mushroom, are used in herbal remedies.

Prior to 1972 it was thought by the USDA that the species was invasive so cultivation was not allowed in the United States. In 1982, Gary F. Leatham published an academic paper based on his research on the budding and growth of the Japan Islands variety; the work helped make commercial cultivation possible in United States.

Today,  mushrooms have become popular in many other countries as well. Russia produces and also consumes large amounts of them, mostly sold pickled, something I have never tried. There is a global industry in  production, with local farms in most western countries in addition to large-scale importation from China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere.  A lot of the imported mushrooms come to us dried. They have a very rich flavor but I prefer the texture of the fresh ones.

The fried rice recipe I made was a variation on one I found on epicurious.com.

Ginger Fried Rice with Shiittake Mushrooms and Asparagus

Makes 6 side-dish servings

2 tablespoons plus 1-teaspoon vegetable oil

2 large eggs, beaten with 2-tablespoons water

1 ½ tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger (I recently read that you can freeze ginger root and just grate it into a recipe and that’s what I did this time and it works great. You don’t even need to fool around with peeling it)

3 scallions, white and green parts chopped separately

3 green garlic, white part and tender light green parts sliced thinly  (optional)

½ lb asparagus cut on the diagonal into 1” pieces

¾ teaspoons kosher salt

½ lb fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps thinly sliced (you could substitute dried shiitake that have been soaked and drained, or you could try crimini but the flavor and texture of either of these will be very different than the shiitake. I definitely wouldn’t recommend using the white mushrooms.)

3 cups cold cooked white rice (I use a short grain white which tends to stick together more than the long grain but it worked just fine.)

½ teaspoon Asian sesame oil

Toasted sesame seeds (not sure how many I added probably a tablespoon or two)

Heat a wok or a 12-inch nonstick skillet over moderate heat until hot. Then add ½ teaspoon vegetable oil and swirl around wok/pan. Add half of egg mixture and swirl pan to coat bottom with a thin layer about 5 inches in diameter. When egg crêpe is set, about 45 seconds, transfer with a wide metal spatula to a plate to cool. Make another egg crêpe with remaining egg mixture. Roll each crêpe into a cylinder, and cut crosswise into ¼ inch-wide strips, then unroll. (This was so simple to do and I loved the way it looked and tasted. If you don’t want to make the crêpes, scramble the egg and water mixture)

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in wok over high heat until it begins to smoke. Add ginger, white part of scallions, garlic and salt and stir-fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add shiitakes and s and stir-fry until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Crumble rice into wok add asparagus pieces and stir –fry until rice is lightly browned and asparagus is still crisp tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and add scallion greens, egg strips, and sesame oil, tossing to combine.

I don’t see why you couldn’t substitute broccoli for the asparagus. Just keep the pieces cut into sizes that will cook uniformly, or steam the broccoli separately then add at the end with the scallion greens and egg strips. I think I would also like to try this with bok choy as the vegetable. This is an easy meal to prepare, as with most stir-fries the longest time will be spent in preparation.

If you give this one a try let me know how you liked it and what substitutions you made.

Satsumaimo or Japanese Sweet Potatoes

Strawberries weren’t the only things we bought at the Farmers’ Market on Sunday, although in Landon’s mind they were the only things that mattered. We also bought asparagus, snap peas, artichokes, green onions, Fuji apples and Japanese sweet potatoes.

Japanese sweet potatoes, or Satsumaimo, if you’re not familiar with them, have dark pink skin and cream-colored, slightly sweet flesh. I discovered these little gems at my local market a couple of years ago and have become a big fan, buying them whenever I find them. I like buying them when they are fairly small in size. I brought home four. Just enough for one meal of mashed potatoes and leftovers for fried potato cakes.

For dinner Sunday night, I paired the mashed Japanese sweet potatoes up with a nice steamed artichoke and a pork loin steak marinated with fresh sage leaves from my garden and rubbed with a little lemon and black pepper oil, then grilled to perfection.

To cook the sweet potatoes; I peel them and immerse them in water, to prevent them from browning, then cook them in simmering water until fork-tender, then mash them with some butter.  To fry the leftovers; make small 2 or 3” patties about ¼ “ thick and fry in olive oil until browned and crispy. These are so delicious. I love them paired up with grilled lamb chops and have converted quite a few fellow diners who were a little skeptical.

Next time you’re at the market look for Japanese sweet potatoes. You won’t be disappointed.

UPDATE:  12/14/2010

Here’s another way to use these beauties and this time it’s in pancakes for breakfast. Oh my were these good. Check out bitemekitchen.com for the recipe.

Northern California Asparagus Festivals

March 20, CUESA Asparagus Festival
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, San Francisco

The Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) in San Francisco who’s mission is is to promote a sustainable
food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs is celebrating Asparagus next Saturday, March 20.  Here’s a list of the events:

10 am – 1 pm – The CUESA kitchen team will sell open-faced grilled asparagus sandwiches with fresh goat cheese on Acme bread for a $1 donation.  While you’re in the kitchen, visit the Asparagus Education Booth to learn all about how this early spring vegetable is grown.

11:00 am – Asparagus cooking demonstration
Peter Rudolph, Madera Restaurant at the Rosewood Sand Hill

11:45 am – Asparagus cooking demonstration
David Bazirgan, Chez Papa Resto

All programs take place in CUESA’s Dacor teaching kitchen, in front of the Ferry Building on the north side.


April 23 -25, The Stockton Asparagus Festival
Stockton, CA

The Stockton Asparagus Festival is celebrating it’s 25 year Anniversary this spring and you won’t want to miss it.  It was lauded by Sunset Magazine in March 2000, as ”#1 Best of the West Food Fest” and has upheld that status since then.  There will be music, kids entertainment, eating competitions, cooking demonstrations and much more. If you love asparagus and festivals you’ll definitely want to mark this on your calendar. You can find more information here.


Early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans prized Asparagus. Me too!

Although it isn’t officially Spring, it sure feels like it. Days have been warm and sunny. The trees are blooming, and the fields are filled with flowers of mustard and wild radish. There are even California poppies blooming here and there.

It’s a time when the earth is waking from her winter sleep. A marvelous time when there are not only an abundance of flowers blooming there are wonderful vegetables that only come with spring.  And that includes one of my favorites, asparagus.

A member of the lily family, asparagus, (Asparagus officinalis), comes from the Greek word asparagos, which first appears in English print around 1000 A.D. It is known to be native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor areas. Egyptians, Greeks and Romans prized asparagus for its unique flavor, texture and cleansing and healing properties. It has been grown in Syria and Spain since ancient times and in the 16th Century, asparagus gained popularity in France and England. The colonists introduced it to the US. Today people throughout Europe, Asia, and North America enjoy fresh asparagus in a variety of ways.

Asparagus can be used as an ingredient in a main dish, served in salads and soups, and makes a delicious appetizer. It can be steamed, sautéed, grilled, stir-fried, baked or broiled. Not only is it delicious, it’s low in calories and sodium, and contains no fat or cholesterol. Asparagus contains Glutathione, one of the body’s most potent cancer fighters and Rutin, which is valuable in strengthening blood vessels.

Early asparagus can be very thin; fatter, juicier spears come in later in the season. Thinner asparagus is better suited to sautés, sauces, or grilling. Later, fatter asparagus is better served whole. Look for asparagus that is smooth-skinned and bright-colored. The heads should be compact and tightly formed. If the heads are not compact and tightly formed the asparagus was harvested too late, and will likely be tough, taste grassy and bitter and may discolor when cooked.

Here’s a recipe that just shouts Spring.

Asparagus in lemon and herb sauce

Serves 4 -6

20 to 30 stalks of asparagus, 6” long

3 egg yolks

1 teaspoon cornstarch

Juice of 1 lemon

1 cup warm Chicken Stock

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

1 tablespoon finely minced chives (optional)

1 tablespoon finely minced dill (optional)

Clean the asparagus, removing the tough ends. Cook asparagus in boiling water until tender; be sure not to overcook. The stalks should still be slightly crisp. As soon as the asparagus is done, run it under cold water. Keep warm while making the sauce.

In a small heavy saucepan, combine the egg yolks and cornstarch. Add the lemon juice and whisk until the mixture is quite smooth.

Add the warm stock and place the saucepan over medium heat. Cook the sauce until it is quite thick, whisking vigorously all the time. As soon as the sauce has the consistency of custard, remove the saucepan immediately from the heat and continue whisking until the sauce has cooled.

Season the sauce with salt and pepper and add the optional, chives and dill. Place the asparagus on a serving platter and spoon the sauce over it without covering the tips. Serve immediately.

From: The Seasonal Kitchen, by Perla Meyers

For another delicious way to cook asparagus check out my recent post  Grill\’n Between Storms.

What to buy at the Farmers’ Market:

Asparagus

Eggs

Lemon

Chives

Grill’n Between Storms


Grilling in February isn’t unheard of where I live. I’m lucky to live in an area where there are many winter days that are sunny and dry. On days like that, that come between storms, I get the urge to roll my little grill out of the garage where I keep it and grill away.

Today was one of those days and I found myself in the mood to grill. But what?  A quick inventory of the the fridge turned up fennel and asparagus which both grill up nicely, a further search turned up up spring lamb chops.

Now that I knew what I was going to grill I headed to the back yard for some herbs. Rosemary, definitely a must have, for the lamb. Some thyme for the veggies, but not English thyme, I have some lime scented thyme in my garden.  I know lemon is a good accompaniment to both asparagus and fennel, so why not lime?  I marinate the lamb in olive oil, garlic and rosemary, the asparagus and fennel in olive oil and the lime thyme.

I decided to add one item that didn’t require grilling, a nice soft “pumpkin” polenta. I had some roasted winter squash left over and decided that this recipe from The Tra Vigne Cookbook, Seasons in The California Wine Country, by Michael Chiarello was just begging to be tried. It was fantastic. The perfect accompaniment to the grilled lamb and veggies.

Put a little summer into your winter days by firing up your grill in between storms.

Soft “Pumpkin” Polenta

1 ½ cups chicken stock

1 ¼ cups heavy cream

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

¼ teaspoon salt

Pinch ground white pepper

5 tablespoons polenta

5 tablespoons semolina

1 cup roasted winter squash pureed

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Combine stock and cream in a heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add the nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Whisk in the polenta and semolina and cook over very low heat, whisking regularly, until the grains are soft, about 8 minutes. Whisk in the squash then the cheese.

What to buy at the Farmers’ Market:

Asparagus

Fennel

Lamb chops

Rosemary

Thyme (lemon or lime)

Garlic

Winter squash