21 May 2010

Asparagus Salad, a la naturelle

You might think that I am a raw food devotee by many of the simple selections I publish here, but actually I'm not really, although I do enjoy them. What I am, is continually surprised at how such simple preparations can really make an ingredient sing a tune I have never experienced before. Which brings me round to the much revered asparagus, well at least revered by me. It has always been one of my favorite vegetables and made me feel so worldly as a kid when we had them at home. It was a vegetable that more times than not came out of a can and infrequently at that, but still made my heart skip a beat and put a smile on my face whenever  it was on the family meal.  With 3 growing boys in our family, asparagus was a luxury item and I don't recall ever foraging for the wild ones until I was on my own during college and delighted to discover what a fun outing that could be. I studied horticulture when in college and often thought that  a patch of asparagus and some small fruit trees would suit me as a small scale farmer. Alas, that is not how things turned out, which is just fine, but still think some day I will be somewhere to put some 30 year crowns down, not only for ourselves but for whomever would come next.
I know wild asparagus foraging time is long past by now for most of you, but we are seeing the last of the tender stalks in the market these days and after having bought an extraordinary amount of the big fat stemmed variety the other day I tried them a new way; raw as a salad. We have have such a range of varieties this year, and it still is a bit of a luxury item, but so wonderful and such a short lived season that hey, you gotta  splash out every once in a while. If you can find some very fresh meaty stemmed stalks, do try slicing them razor thin on a mandolin or slaw cutter, toss with your favorite vinaigrette and  serve as a refreshing side salad. It pairs up nicely with poached salmon or saltimboca that we like to make with turkey cutlets. You will find a light spring meal that works well on a brunch buffet also. If you can't  find the thick ones try another easy asparagus antipasto idea here that I have made with a piece of puff pastry, some gorgonzola and asparagus, baked to crispy deliciousness. Just don't let asparagus season bypass you.
Asparagus Viniagrette

for 2 recipe, easily increased

1/2 lb (250g) fresh fat stalks asparagus

Fresh herbs, like basil, dill, chervil, tarragon chives
Olive oil, extra virgin
vinegar of choice, apple, red wine, tarragon, etc
balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

Wash and dry your stalks
Trim the tough bottoms off leaving plenty of stem
With a vegetable peeler clean the bottom 1/3 of the stems to remove the tough outer skin.
My stalks were quite long so I cut them in half before slicing
Take 3 stalks and slice thing on your vegetable slicer
I think you won't get them thin enough slicing by hand and that is really the key to this flavorful salad
Set aside while you make your vinaigrette

I am not big on measuring for vinegrettes and usually keep doctoring till I reach my desired flavor
You want to have between 1/3 to half cup of dressing, dressing to taste. 

I use the standard proportion of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil.
I find that it can be a bit tart, so I often add an additional tablespoon or so of balsamic to add a bit of sweetness. You can use just straight balsamic, but I often find that a tad too sweet, so I often use a combination of both vinegars to make a nice balance for the salad. If you want it more sweet,  use more balsamic, more tart, apple or red wine vinegar. If you don't have balsamic but want it a bit sweeter, try a dash of brown sugar, but not too much.

As far as herbs, I would say keep to perhaps just one  fresh herb as the flavor of the asparagus could easily be overwhelmed with herbs and you really want to enhance it flavor not drown it out.  The only exception might be to use chives with one other herb and I think you will find a nice balance.
Use 2 Tb of the fresh herbs. Dried herbs can be substituted, but use much less as they are concentrated flavor and quite different from the fresh herb.

Pour the vinaigrette over the sliced asparagus, let stand at least 15 minutes at room temperature before serving, making sure to toss just before serving and adjusting your seasoning if necessary.

Post Script
I told Davide, whose family farm over in Scalenghe produced these delectable treats, that I had written a post featuring his fat boy asparagus. He was so happy that I thought I would put a photo of his spears in this post. This was what was left over at the end of a busy Saturday market.

13 May 2010

Stinging Nettle Pesto

This seasonal herb that grows along the roadside and in areas often referred to as disturbed soils and what most of us think of as a nasty surprise when we're out hiking in the hills and brush up against it with bare skin. Yes, that would be the dreaded stinging nettle, or ortiche as it is called here. I had always thought of it as a nuisance, a weed, a plant out of place, until I arrived here and my mother in law introduced me to the many faces of stinging nettle that now make it a welcome attraction instead of the one to avoid. I'm here to tell you that it's a fine addition to soups and savory tarts, ravioli and just about anywhere you would use spinach. Once  stripped from the stems, washed and briefly cooked, all that stinging business has gone away and a mild flavorful green is left to add to whatever strikes your fancy.

Recently while cleaning rooms I was listening to one of my favorite pod-casts by Lynne Rosetto Kasper of the famed NPR program "The Splendid Table." I use to listen to it years ago back in Colorado, but was delighted to find it available on itunes podcasts list when we splashed out last summer for an ipod. What a treat this program is if you enjoy food and love learning about a wide ranging topics on the subject of eating.  If you have never discovered this program I highly recommend searching for it on your local public radio station or on itunes podcasts. It's free, interesting and entertaining.
My mother in law has never had nettles this way, but she was wild about it and I think you might be too.  I foraged just out our door for the more tender top parts of the plant and preferably before they have gone to seed. Do wear rubber gloves and take care to cover all exposed skin to avoid any of the effects of the sting of the nettle. Once I had cleaned them, cooked and whipped up my pesto. I drizzled a little hazelnut oil on top of the crostini that I had slathered on my crusty home made bread and that little touch took this modest taste treat to the sublime. So do a little neighborhood foraging and you'll find a nice change of pace on the pesto front just outside your back door.

Here's the recipe from The Splendid Table's  guest, Louisa Shafia, from her recent cookbook,
"Lucid Food". You can also find her blog by the same name here, Lucid Food.
where she celebrates an eco concious way of cooking and living.
It's a fabulously tasty recipe and if it is any indication of the rest of the cookbook, you might want to pick up a copy.

Stinging Nettle Pesto
Featured on the March 6, 2010 episode
Reprinted from Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life by Louisa Shafia.
Copyright © 2009 Published by Ten Speed Press.

Makes approximately 3 cups
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 pound stinging nettles
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Fill a large pot halfway full with water. Add 1/4 cup salt and bring to a boil.
Fill the sink or a large bowl with cold water. Using gloves or tongs, submerge the nettles in the water and let them sit for 5 minutes. Remove the nettles and discard the water. Wearing rubber gloves, pull the leaves from the stems and discard the stems.
Put the nettles in the boiling water and boil for 1 minute. Drain and spread the nettles on a baking sheet. Let cool completely. Squeeze out as much of the water as possible and coarsely chop.
Place the nettles in the bowl of a food processor with the mint, garlic, pine nuts, and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice. Process until the mixture has formed a paste.
With the machine running, pour in the olive oil. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the cheese. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

05 May 2010

Spring gets seriously underway, finally

Spring seemed to hold it's breath for awhile as it's been cool and slow coming, until it seemed to not be able to contain itself anymore and has gone into fast forward. These are our wild cherry trees out front of our house. Lovely aren't they?
I'm still working hard to revamp our web site so have been absent from consistent blogging lately.  I thought I would share a few spring images from the neighborhood to celebrate this verdant time of the year.

Anyone know what these are specifically? I always call them spring orchids, due to the leaves which are like the more recognizable orchids that will be coming along shortly, like these below.

Little wild orchids are just so exciting to me and I love their appearance every year. We have quite a few in the neighborhood. I will be looking forward to the progression of the spring wildflowers.  What are some of the harbingers of spring for you in your part of the world?
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