Saturday, May 21, 2005

Asparagus with Delicious Dip

(Originally posted @2010)

 Hadley, Massachusetts is one town over from us. This is an especially important fact to remember come May because Hadley is the asparagus capital of the world. The world! I know.

It's also where our very good friends live (our friends who are Ben's friend Ava's parents, if you're a long-time reader here). Not surprisingly, given the whole world-capital situation, our friends live across the street from a ginormous asparagus farm. An asparagus farm the owners of which have told them to go ahead and help themselves! Whenever! (They also live across the street from a tobacco farm, but don't worry--I won't be posting any recipes.)

"It's hard not to be greedy!" our friend Nicole said, after walking the kids across the street to pick with her. And then she pulled a gigantic asparagus-stuffed bag out of her backpack. And then another. "Very hard, it looks like," her husband said, and we laughed. But oh they are good.

Don't believe the hype about the skinny ones. Pencil-thin this and that is everyone's favorite, but not mine. I like the big, fat asparagus, which are the sweetest I think. Also, fatness is not a sign of age: while asparagus do get longer as they get older, they poke out of the ground as thin or fat as they are ever going to be. When I was visiting my brother's family a few weeks ago, my sister-in-law ended up having to explain the word "phallic" to my nephew, who had overheard us in the garden laughing our heads off over a particularly well-endowed specimen in the asparagus patch. Oops.

So, now that I seem to have managed to mention both tobacco and x-rated vegetables, it's time to talk about cooking the asparagus before I say something gross about the way it makes your pee smell. I love asparagus roasted in the oven: I toss it with olive oil and salt on a foil-lined baking sheet, then roast them at 450 until they're browning and tender. But when they're super-fresh like this, I find a brief boil the best way to emphasize their mellow sweetness. Plus, this is the way the kids are most likely to eat them. You know what I said last week about salmon? That's how the kids are about asparagus too. Sometimes they love them and sometimes not. Right now they love them. Maybe later in the week I'll post my hollandaise recipe, which is a great way to get kids involved with any vegetable that has them shuddering. But for now, we're going to make this lovely salmon-colored dip that is zingily delicious and insanely easy and also uses some of those chipotles I made you buy for the dinner beans and the tamale pie. (See? Aren't they coming in handy?) This dip is also great with other veggies--raw carrots and blanched broccoli, for example--as well as on sandwiches and in chicken salad. My kids love it, but if it's too spicy for yours, you can always cut back on the chipotles, or substitute some smoked paprika, which is smoky but not hot.

As with all vegetable matter, put this out before dinner when your kids are milling around starvingly. They'll eat it.

Asparagus with Delicious Dip
If you want to serve the asparagus hot, simply omit the dip and the cold-water rinse, then add butter, salt, and a squeeze of lemon juice to taste.

1 or 2 bunches of very fresh asparagus (the bottoms should look moist and freshly cut)
1/2 cup Hellman's or Best Foods mayonnaise (not reduced-fat)
1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
1 small clove of garlic: cut it open, pull out the green shoot, and then finely chop it or put it through a garlic press
1/4-1/2 teaspoon chipotle puree (see photo at right and instructions here)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)

Wash the asparagus in a large sinkful of cold water while you bring an inch of water to a boil over high heat in a very wide pan. Now snap the bottom off of each asparagus spear: there will be a place where it naturally wants to break, a couple inches up from the very bottom, and you will feel this if you bend it a bit. Add the asparagus to the boiling water, spreading them out in the pan as best as you can, and cover. Check for doneness starting at 2 minutes: stick the tip of a paring knife into one and see if it feels tender. If not, boil another minute or two, moving them around in the pan with tongs so that they all get a fair shot at submersion. Drain them and run cold water over them until they're cool, then spread them out on a clean dishtowel to dry. Meanwhile you've whisked together the mayo, lemon juice, garlic, chipotle, and salt. Use a cooked asparagus to taste the dip, and re-season it if it needs more salt, chipotle, or lemon juice. 

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Asparagus Bread Pudding

Asparagus Bread Pudding
Active time: 15 minutes; total time 1 hour
Serves 6

Here, stale bread gets new life as the world's easiest, cheesiest soufflé. Call it "savory French toast" if that will encourage your kids to eat it--and make it in the spring, when asparagus is fresh and plentiful. You could also try using sauteed mushrooms, steamed broccoli florets, roasted zucchini, or whatever vegetables catche your eye at the market. Likewise, although the tarragon and chives go beautifully with asparagus, use whatever fresh herbs your family likes best. Serve the bread pudding with fruit for brunch or with a crisp salad for dinner.

1 loaf of French bread, cut into 1 1/2-inch slices
1 bunch of asparagus, washed, bottoms snapped off, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
5 large eggs
2 1/2 cups whole milk (or a mixture of low-fat milk and cream or half and half)
2 teaspoons kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon snipped chives
1/2 pound cheese, grated (try Swiss, cheddar, Monterey jack, or a combination)

Heat the oven to 350 and grease a large casserole dish. Place the bread on a large baking sheet and toast for 10 or so minutes, until it is dry to the touch, but not browned.

Meanwhile, bring a small pot of salted water to a boil and cook the asparagus pieces for 3 minutes, then drain, rinse with cold water, and drain again. Whisk together the eggs, milk, salt, pepper, and herbs.

Arrange the bread slices in the casserole dish, overlapping as little as possible, then arrange the asparagus over the bread, sprinkle with the cheese, and pour the custard over all, pressing down any bread pieces that aren't submerged. Allow to sit for half an hour or so, so that the bread can absorb the egg mixture--or else refrigerate it, covered, overnight. Bake it in the middle of the oven for 35-45 minutes, until it is puffed and brown. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Asparagus with Pink-Grapefruit Sauce

Asparagus with Pink-Grapefruit Sauce
Serves 4
Total time: 15 minutes

You might have to lick the platter, and that will have to be okay with everyone--the sauce is just so buttery-rich, but also bright, sweet, and fragrant with citrus. It's a perfect match for tender, springtime asparagus--or for broccoli, green beans, or even fish.

1 large bunch of asparagus (about 1 1/2 pounds)
Kosher salt
1/3 cup freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice (from 1/2 a small grapefruit)
1/2 teaspoon champagne or white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons butter, cut into 3 pieces
1 teaspoon freshly grated pink grapefruit zest
1/4 teaspoon sugar

Wash the asparagus and bring a half an inch or so of salted water to a boil over high heat in a wide, lidded pan. Now snap the bottom off of each asparagus spear: there will be a place where it naturally wants to break, a couple inches up from the very bottom, and you will feel this if you bend it a bit. Spread the asparagus out in the boiling water, cover the pan, and cook until just tender. (Check for doneness starting at 3 minutes: stick the tip of a paring knife into one and see if it feels tender. If not, boil another minute or two, moving them around in the pan every once in a while.) Once they're done, pull them out of the pan with tongs and lay them out on a dishtowel to dry while you make the sauce.

In a very small pot, boil the juice and vinegar over medium heat until reduced to around 2 tablespoons, 3 or 4 minutes (you can do this while the asparagus cooks). Whisk in the butter, which will start first to melt and then to thicken the sauce. Whisk in the zest and sugar and 1/4 teaspoon or so of kosher salt (or half as much table salt). Taste the sauce for balance--add a drop more vinegar, sugar, or salt if it needs it--then pour the sauce over the asparagus and serve.

Asparagus with Brown-Butter Sauce

(originally posted in March 2010)

The kids are thawing out outside in the thaw, riding their bikes around and around the dirt-breaded mounds of snow like they've emerged from hibernation with a craving for nothing but air. There are many things I miss during the long winter months--the dear sight of their arms and legs, for instance, or the way anybody's nose looks when it's not crusted with snot--but watching them now, out the window, I realize that I've been missing exactly this: the pleasure of seeing them from a distance, silently. Winter is the season of everybody's face an inch away from yours, everybody's fleecy limbs flung across you every minute of every day, every conversation heard and overheard and overly overheard, if you know what I'm saying. I love the closeness and company, I really do, but right now that sunlit space between us is like a tonic.

As is the sunlight itself, of course. O, shining sun! I am reborn in your image.

It's just borrowed spring, of course, this early in March. For one thing, the daffodils are imported from England. For another, the asparagus are imported from Mexico. But in these early cheater days of the season, I couldn't help myself. It will doubtless snow another two feet before we get our own daffodils and asparagus. But I don't even care, because it's coming. You can smell it in the morning--that metallic breeze that pours in with all the early light. The children wake with energy spooling through them like they're crazy-straws coursing with metabolic juice. The pussycat bounds around like he's a furry four-footed clown with springs for legs.

So asparagus, of course. The first ones must be eaten standing up, at the counter, leaning over the plate like you are dying from a hundred vitamin deficiencies and have torn the green shoots from the mud with your own bare and scurvied hands. And you know how I am about kids and vegetables. How I am is: butter. A little butter is a perfectly wholesome thing to eat, and vegetables are massively wholesome, and the two together are an extraordinary match. Why force children to experience vegetables as a punishment? "A plate of plain steamed broccoli! Eat it. Maybe next time you'll think twice before needing vitamins!" Here, the butter is swirled over heat until it is toasty-looking and so lusciously fragrant that you will be practically slavering into the pan. Of course browning butter is not exactly a straw-into-gold scenario, since butter is heavenly to begin with. But try it, and see if you can't get your kids to love some green something that they weren't so sure about before. Mine are up and down with asparagus--by the end of the season, they'll think it's maybe kind of revolting--but to say that the platter was licked clean would not be figurative in this case. Or, to quote my delightfully insane son: "This is so not aspara-gross!"

Asparagus with Brown-Butter Sauce
Serves 4
Total time: 15 minutes

I've said this before, but I like fat asparagus: they're no older than skinny ones--and I think they're sweeter and juicier and just yummier overall. But these were pretty skinny, and they were wonderful too.

1 pound very fresh asparagus (the bottoms should look moist and freshly cut)
Kosher salt
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Wash the asparagus and bring an inch or so of water to a boil over high heat in a very wide lidded pan. Now snap the bottom off of each asparagus spear: there will be a place where it naturally wants to break, a couple inches up from the very bottom, and you will feel this if you bend it a bit. Spread the asparagus out in the boiling water, and cover them. Check for doneness starting at 2 minutes: stick the tip of a paring knife into one and see if it feels tender. If not, boil another minute or two or three, moving them around in the pan with tongs every once in a while. Once they're done, pull them out of the pan with tongs and plunk them on a dish towel to dry while you make the brown butter sauce.

Now, theoretically, you could already having been making the sauce while the asparagus was cooking, but honestly it's all so quick anyway that I recommend doing one thing at a time--you don't want to overcook the asparagus or burn the butter, both of which are fairly easy to do. Now: put the butter in a very small pan (ideally light-colored, the photos of my black pan notwithstanding, so that you can see the color change) over medium low heat. Let the butter melt, then continue cooking it, swirling the pan constantly, until the butter gets golden-brown and smells nutty and swoonish, another 3 or 4 minutes. Err on the side of underdone since a) it will cook for a bit longer after you turn the heat off, and b) as long as it's not burnt, the butter will be good no matter what.

Put the asparagus on a warm platter (you don't want the butter to congeal) and pour the sauce over it, making sure to get all the yummy brown bits out of the bottom of the pan. Eat. 

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Oven-Roasted Chickpeas

Oven-Roasted Chickpeas

If your children are likely to be skeptical, call them "nuts." Not in a lying way, but in a way where you say "chickpea nuts," only you kind of mumble and swallow the chickpea part and then say "nuts" nice and loud. They are crunchy and salty and addictive, but also wholesome and incredibly satisfying. If curry isn't your seasoning, try something else: just the garlic powder, maybe, or some smoked paprika and celery salt. I want to make buffalo chickpeas, and coat them in Frank's hot sauce, dip them in blue cheese dressing. But maybe that's just me. The curry is pretty appealing to the kids we know. Birdy, for instance, gobbles them by the handful. “I love these!” she cries. And then, with her mouth full, clarifies: “But I don’t love them more than cake!” Well, sure.

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and spread on paper towels to dry
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt or half as much table salt (more if there’s none in your curry powder)

Heat the oven to 400. Heat the oil in a small pan over low heat, then add the curry and garlic powders, and stir until fragrant. Turn off the heat, pour in the chickpeas, and stir gently until they’re coated with the oil and spice. Spread them in a foil-lined rimmed baking pan and bake for forty-five minutes to an hour, shaking the pan every ten minutes or so. When they’re done, some will be brown and crunchy and some will be golden and still a bit soft in the middle and, ideally, none will be burnt.