All About Asparagus- Part 1

Photo from Liz West

If ever there was a harbinger of spring, it’s asparagus.  As the days grow longer and the soil warms, asparagus suddenly springs into life, sending up shoots that can grow 6 to 10 inches a day.  At its peak asparagus can grow almost faster than it can be harvested. This vitality has, over the ages, put it high on the list of foods which have special powers to increase potency and sexual vigor!  Whether this is true or not, asparagus leads nearly all produce in the wide array of nutrients it supplies in significant amounts. A leading supplier of folic acid, which is essential for blood cell formation, growth, and prevention of liver disease, a 5 ounce serving provides nearly 60% of the recommended daily allowance. With less than 20 calories per 5 ounce serving, asparagus is also a good source for thiamine and vitamins C and B6.

BUYERS GUIDE
Types of Asparagus
Though there are many species of asparagus we eat just one, “asparagus officinalis”.  The basic difference in what we see in the market is color.

•    Green:  This is what most of us buy.  It comes thick or thin and now is available much of the year in supermarkets since it is grown widely around the world and shipped to us.  Nice that it’s more available but time from harvest affects both its flavor and texture.  Asparagus purists sound the same mantra as those who love corn:  For best flavor get it from the “plot to the pot” (or grill or oven) as quickly after harvest as you can.

•    Purple:  Purple asparagus originated from the region around Albenga, Italy. This “cultivar” is known as Violetto di Albenga and you’ll see it in specialty food markets primarily.  It’s almost always more expensive than green since purple hybrids produce fewer stalks per plant. Many say that purple is sweeter and more tender than green so it’s great used raw in salads.  Unfortunately its beautiful purple color fades to green when it is cooked unless just very briefly stir fried.

•    White:  The most expensive of the three because it requires much more work to produce. Earth has to be constantly heaped up over the spears as they grow, to prevent exposure to sunlight which would develop their chlorophyll and turn them green. Fresh white asparagus is hard to find in America unless you are in a large, sophisticated urban market. In Europe it’s widely available fresh during the spring and highly prized.  It’s also readily available canned there and in America as well.  Canned white asparagus is used mostly in composed salads. White asparagus has a flavor all of its own – - it tends to be milder than the other two and often will have just a touch of pleasant bitterness.

What to Look For
Whether you prefer the thick or thin spears of whatever color, be certain they are fresh. The sugar in the plant quickly converts to starch after harvesting, causing a loss in flavor and development of a woody texture.
Select firm, straight, smooth, rich green stalks with tightly-closed tips. Open tips, ridges in the stems and a dull green color are an indication of old age. The stalks should not be limp or dry at the cut. Choose stalks of uniform thickness for more control in the cooking process.

How to Store

With all types of asparagus, do not wash before storing and never soak it. Trim the ends of fresh asparagus and stand them upright in a jar with about an inch of water in the bottom. Cover with a plastic bag and store spears in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Size Really Doesn’t Tell You Much

The conventional wisdom is that the thin, pencil size asparagus are more tender than those that are fatter.  Truth is that diameter of the stalk isn’t necessarily a good guide to its tenderness.  Actually the fatter the spear usually the more tender.  Reason:  No matter what its size, each spear has a set number of tough fibers that run its length.  In a small spear they are crammed together and there is less juicy white flesh between them.  With fatter spears the fibers are further apart separated by more tender, sweet flesh.

And now for a recipe, to get you cooking with the delicious asparagus you’ve chosen!

GRILLED ASPARAGUS WITH LEMON OLIVE OIL, PECORINO AND PROSCUITTO
Serves 4
Lemon infused olive oil is available in Italian markets and good gourmet and stores.  Agrumato brand from Italy and “O” from California both make great citrus infused oils.
1 pound fresh asparagus, tough ends discarded
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt such as Maldon’s
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons or so Italian or California lemon infused extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup Pecorino or Parmigiano cheese shaved thinly with a vegetable peeler
8 very thin slices prosciutto
3 tablespoons capers, drained, patted dry and fried till crisp in olive oil   Lemon wedges

Brush the asparagus with the olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Over hot coals or a gas grill preheated to medium high grill the asparagus till it takes on a bit of color.  Roll and turn so that it’s marked on all sides but still green and crisp.  Place on a plate and drizzle with lemon olive oil. Scatter cheese over, arrange prosciutto attractively on top and sprinkle capers around. Serve lemon wedges on the side.  Add more salt and pepper if desired.

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Eating lamb in Patagonia

20120302-113513.jpg

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Remembering Ingram’s Chili Bowl

Photo from Serenejournal

Longtime Sonoma County residents, and even those who have traveled to Sonoma County through the years, may remember Ingram’s Chili Bowl. It was a very simple place that opened in 1951 on Old Redwood Highway in Santa Rosa. The seats were always filled and you’d often find lines of truck drivers and construction workers waiting to get a good, hearty lunch. It was a piece of America that hardly exists any more, a simple “mom and pop” restaurant making good food.

I was sad when I heard the news a few months ago that owner Jack Ingram died. Memories have taken me back to September of 1997 when I teamed up with fellow Sonoma County chefs Michael Quigley, Dan and Kathleen Berman, Mark Dierkhising and Michael Hirschberg for a fundraiser to help the Ingrams avoid being eliminated by a development plan by Home Depot. We turned the chili diner into a fine restaurant for the night, with white linen tablecloths, fancy silverware and wine glasses, and it was a lot of fun. We did manage to help the Ingrams survive that battle, but in 2000, Jack’s son had taken over the restaurant and decided to close it.

In honor of Jack, and small independent restauranteurs everywhere, I am posting this great chili recipe. It is very similar to the one that was served at Ingram’s Chili Bowl.

30 MINUTE CHILI WITH (OR WITHOUT) BEANS

Serves 8 – 10

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 medium onions, chopped

6 large garlic cloves, chopped

Salt and freshly black ground pepper

1/2 can (3 ounces) tomato paste

3 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons chopped canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 pounds coarse ground beef chuck (85% lean)

3 cans (14.5 ounces each) diced tomatoes in juice

1 bottle (12 ounces) mild lager beer

2 cans (14.5 ounces each) kidney beans, rinsed and drained (optional)

Garnishes: Shredded pepper jack cheese, chopped cilantro, avocado, lime wedges and corn chips

In a Dutch oven or large (5-quart) heavy pot, heat oil over medium-high. Add onions and garlic. Season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes.
Add tomato paste, chili powder, chipotles, cumin and cinnamon. Cook, stirring, until mixture has begun to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add beef, and cook, breaking it up with a spoon until no longer pink, about 5 minutes.
Add tomatoes with their juice, and beer. Bring to a boil, and reduce to a rapid simmer. Cook over medium heat until chili has thickened slightly. Add beans, if using and cook till they are tender, about 5 minutes. Serve in bowls passing garnishes separately for guests to add at will!
John Ash © 2008

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Cooking for Solutions: Sablefish

Photo from Wikipedia

I’m already looking ahead to spring of the New Year and one of my favorite events I participate in each year, the Cooking for Solutions gathering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I am one of the founding chefs of this event and I fully believe in its mission to educate people about why and how to inspire conservation in our oceans.  This year’s event takes place May 18-20, 2012 and I’ve been assigned Sablefish as my star ingredient for a dish to serve at the Friday night Gala Tasting.

Sablefish, also known as Black Cod or Butterfish is one of my favorite fishes, and of course, it is sustainably managed in the wild. It has a delicious flavor and one of its best attributes is that even if you overcook it a bit, the fish is still moist and firm. I’m working on the recipe right now and will share it with you soon!

In the meantime, I hope you’ll put this year’s Cooking for Solutions event on your calendar and consider making a spring trip to Monterey with me!  In addition to the Friday night Gala Tasting, there are several
Food & Wine Adventures you can sign up for.  Here are details for the one I’m participating in.  It’s really going to be a great time!

Food & Wine Adventures
Sat., May 19
9:30 a.m.- 3:30 p.m.
$225 general public / $175 Aquarium members
(Tax-deductible portion: $140 general public / $90 Aquarium members)
Explore, savor and learn at one of six small-group events led by our celebrity chefs. Each takes you on a different exploration of sustainable foods: on the farm, in the water or in the kitchen. Whether you want to hone your culinary skills with a master chef, learn salty stories from a “seafoodie” or explore scenic vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands, our Food & Wine Adventures give you the opportunity to spend time with culinary leaders and gain firsthand knowledge from their expertise.  Depending on the adventure, you’ll join John Ash and Clayton Chapman, Sean Baker, Ben Sargent, Kevin Gillespie, Jesse Ziff Cool or Cindy Pawlcyn for a fascinating culinary exploration.

Tour 1: The Art of Food
Event begins and ends at the Aquarium. Transportation will be provided.
Join celebrity chefs John Ash (culinary educator and cookbook author, Santa Rosa, California), Clayton Chapman (The Grey Plume, Omaha, Nebraska) and Wendy Brodie (Art of Food, Carmel, California) at Wendy’s Carmel Highlands home. Guests will enhance their culinary skills and get a glimpse into the creative minds of each chef as the group prepares a gourmet lunch in a demonstration kitchen that affords sweeping views of forest and ocean. It’s a true opportunity to cook with the masters. You’ll enjoy the fruits of your labors together, along with premium wines by Estancia.

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Cool Kitchen Tip: Opening Sparkling Wines and Champagnes

Photo from B Rosen

At sports victories we’ve all seen the winners shaking a bottle of champagne and then opening it so the cork flies off and the wine showers out of the bottle.  Fine for a sports celebration, but you definitely don’t want to do that at home.  Here are a few tips for properly and safely opening sparkling wines:

1.    Always remember that a bottle of bubbly can be dangerous.  It’s packed with six or so atmospheres of pressure (90 pounds per square inch) within each bottle.  That’s about the same as a truck tire.  Never, never point the cork toward anyone (including yourself) when you open the bottle.

2.    Be sure to chill the bottle before opening, to at least 45 degrees or lower.

3.    Make sure the bottle hasn’t been handled roughly before opening.  You don’t want to agitate the carbon dioxide gas and make it even more explosive.

4.    Hold your thumb on the cap with your left hand as you remove the wire cage.

5.    Hold the bottle at 45 degrees and then turn the base of the bottle with your right hand to loosen the cork.  The cork should be released with a hiss and not a pop.  You don’t want to lose any of those precious bubbles!!
A final note – -Pour the wine slowly into the glass so it doesn’t foam over and be sure your glasses are sparkling clean.  Glasses with any soap or other residues hinder the bubbles!

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Posole- A Recipe to Warm You Up

Photo from Evelyn Giggles

When the weather turns cold, I’m ripe for anything warm, spicy and soupy. One of my favorite simple recipes is Mexican Posole (pronounced po-zo-lay), a delicious mixture of stewed pork or other meats, hominy, chiles and lots of fresh healthy garnishes. Posole is traditionally served at Christmastime and also often on the menu at Mexican restaurants on weekends because it is believed to be a terrific hangover cure! Here’s my favorite recipe:

POSOLE BLANCO

Serves 12 generously. A classic Mexican home recipe that can be made with pork, chicken, goat, etc. The salsa Colorado can also be stirred into the stew before serving. 2 small white onions, peeled and halved 6 large peeled garlic cloves 2 large bay leaves Salt and freshly ground pepper 4 pound boneless pork shoulder, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1-1/2 inch cubes 2 29-ounce cans white posole (hominy) drained and thoroughly rinsed Salsa Colorado (recipe follows) Garnishes: 4 cups finely shredded green cabbage, 2 bunches finely sliced radishes, 2 cups finely diced white onion 1/2 cup dried Mexican oregano* 2 large avocados, peeled, seeded and diced Cilantro sprigs Lime wedges Add onions, garlic cloves, bay leaves, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and 3-1/2 quarts water to a large deep pot and bring to a boil. Add the pork and bring back to the simmer. Skim off scum for the first 20 minutes or so. Cover and simmer until meat is very tender, about 1-1/2 hours. Add the hominy and bring to a simmer. Adjust salt and pepper to taste and serve with the salsa and other garnishes, each guest adding what they like. *Available at Mexican markets and spice shops Salsa Colorado 8 Guajillo chiles, seeds and stems removed 6 Chiles de Arbol, stems removed 3 large peeled garlic cloves 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1 teaspoon dried Mexican* oregano 2 tablespoons white vinegar Salt to taste In a small skillet, toast the guajillos over moderately high heat until toasted in spots and set aside. In the same skillet toast the chiles de arbol until fragrant. Be careful not to burn them or they will become bitter. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil, add the chiles and off heat let them soak for 15 – 20 minutes. Remove chiles from the water and put in a blender along with the garlic, cumin, oregano, vinegar, salt to taste and add enough of the soaking water to make a smooth salsa. Can be made ahead and stored refrigerated for 3 days.

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Perfect Mashed Potatoes- Revisited

Photo from Jude Doyland

It is that time of year again when we turn to warm, comforting holiday foods.  It seems one of the most popular dishes, would also seem one of the most simple– mashed potatoes.  They are simple, but there are a few basics that will help make sure yours are the best.  I published this post last year, and thought I would give us all a refresher.  Enjoy!

1.    Pick the right potato!  Russets from Idaho and Washington are the standard.  My favorite are Yukon Golds which have a thin skin but starchy meat which is what you need for good mashed potatoes.  Don’t use new potatoes (red or white) or fingerlings.  Because of their texture and water content these are great for steaming, boiling and frying but not for mashing.  I know I’ll get some push back from that!

2.    I like to cook potatoes whole with the skin on so they don’t absorb so much water.  As soon as they are tender, immediately drain and then peel as soon after as you can handle without burning yourself.

3.    My favorite tool for mashing is the food mill, which yields a nice texture.  Second choice would be a potato ricer that looks like a giant garlic press and after that the good old hand masher.  If using a mill or ricer, press the potatoes right back into the pan over low heat and stir to evaporate any excess moisture.  If using a hand masher then drain potatoes well and mash them in the pan over low heat.  Never, never use a food processor!  It’s too powerful and will quickly turn the potatoes to glue.

4.    Stir in seasonings and serve mashed potatoes as soon as possible.  If you’re adding milk or cream, heat it in order to keep the potatoes warm.  Some great restaurants actually make mashed potatoes to order because they feel they lose subtle flavors even sitting just a short time.

5.    If you need to hold mashers for a while, do it via the double boiler method, that is with a stainless or glass bowl over barely simmering water. Don’t cover with plastic or foil.  This creates condensation that drips back into the potatoes making them soggy and creating off flavors.

STORING POTATOES
How potatoes are stored also makes a big difference in the final product.  Make sure you store potatoes in a dark, well-ventilated space. Stored in the light they will sprout and turn green which for some can cause a toxic reaction. You can cut out and discard the green but the flavor will still be affected.  Cool room temperature (around 60 degrees) is best.  Don’t refrigerate mashing potatoes, especially russets.  Refrigeration causes the potatoes to convert their starch to sugar, softens them and they lose their potato flavor.  Finally potatoes are sensitive to ethylene gas.  Many fruits (like apples, melons and tomatoes) naturally give off ethylene, which is an odorless, colorless gas that promotes ripening resulting in sprouting and deterioration of the potato.  Keep them separate!

Here’s a mashed potato recipe my Grandmother used to do for special occasions.

MASHED POTATOES AND PARSNIPS WITH CRISP BACON AND ONIONS

Serves 4 – 6

1 pound peeled Yukon Gold or Russet potatoes, cut into 2 inch cubes
1 pound peeled parsnips, cut into 1 inch cubes
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons or more crème fraiche or sour cream
Cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 pound bacon, crisply fried, drained and chopped
1 medium onion, thinly sliced and floured and then deep-fried till crisp and golden
2 tablespoons chopped chives

Add potatoes and parsnips to a saucepan with lightly salted water to cover.  Bring to a boil then cover and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes.  Drain and return to pan over low heat to dry them out.  Mash adding butter, crème fraiche, drops of vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.  Serve immediately topped with bacon, onions and chopped chives.

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Tips for Deep Frying a Turkey

Photo from Mot the Barber

Most of us have heard about deep frying turkey, which originated in the south and is often called “Cajun Fried Turkey”.  When I finally tried it, the results were outstanding, I have to admit.  The turkey was crisp, moist, not greasy and took a whole lot less time to cook.  However I must say that having a big pot of hot bubbling fat over an open flame can be risky.  Underwriters Laboratory notes that an overheated turkey fryer can explode. And, if the oil ignites, it can become what they describe as “a vertical flame thrower”. A number of homes and other buildings (such as garages) are destroyed each year due to the unsafe use of a turkey fryer. UL has refused to list turkey fryers as safe.  They have a very graphic video on YouTube which shows the dangers.  There is another option, however I want to be completely transparent and say that I have no connection with this product or company.  The safer alternative is one made by Char-Broil and it’s  called “The Big Easy”.  It is a propane powered infrared roaster oven that gives you foods that look and taste like they were fried. Anything you can lower into the cooking chamber can be cooked quickly (turkey at about 10 minutes a pound).  It’s also great with chicken and other larger birds.

If you try The Big Easy, or if you have some tips for safely deep frying a turkey, I’d love to hear from you.  However you choose to cook your turkey this Thanksgiving, I hope you have a safe holiday!

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KSRO Chicken Recipe Contest

Lately I have been focused on a true global culinary star—chicken!  I am currently writing an upcoming cookbook called Culinary Birds, and I’ve been gathering and testing recipes.  Wherever you are, whether it be a four-star restaurant, an international street food market, sipping Grandma’s chicken soup at work, or sitting down to a home cooked Sunday meal, the versatility of chicken is unmatched. It can be wrapped and rolled, seasoned and sauced, while never losing its identity.  Here in Sonoma County we are fortunate to live where delicious chicken is locally raised and available year-round.

I host a Saturday morning radio show in Sonoma County called “The Good Food Hour” on KSRO  in Santa Rosa, CA.  We are hosting our 25th Annual Good Food Hour Cooking Contest this month for listeners, and we’ve decided chicken is the perfect ingredient for a fall cooking competition.  I’m inviting anyone who can be in Santa Rosa for the finals on Saturday, November 12th to participate!

We will choose four finalists to come to G&G Supermarket in Santa Rosa on that date to cook their dishes, and a panel of celebrity judges will determine the winner.  The event will be broadcast live with me and my co-host, Steve Garner.  For those outside of the area who would like to listen to the show- there are podcasts available.

First prize is $250 cash for the first place winner, courtesy of Petaluma Poultry.  Other prizes include gift certificates, cookbooks, wine, and cooking classes.  Also, one of the winning recipes will be included in my upcoming Culinary Birds cookbook.

If you’d like to enter, and you can be in Santa Rosa on November 12th for the finals, you may email  your original recipe to my Good Food Hour co-host, Steve Garner.

Deadline for entry is Wednesday, November 9th,  2011 at 5pm.

Good luck!

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Cool Kitchen Tip: Facts About Cookware

Photo from tvol

•    Aluminum:  Remember a few years ago when people were throwing out their aluminum pots and pans because of the “Aluminum causes Alzheimer’s” scare??  According to the National Institutes of Health there is absolutely no evidence that cooking in aluminum pans causes Alzheimer’s
•    Iron: Cooking in an iron pot can add beneficial iron to your diet.  This is especially important for pre-menopausal women, children and teenagers who need extra iron.  Acidic foods like tomatoes or apples that cook for a long time in an iron pot absorb the most iron.  Interestingly though you can also get a little bit of iron from stainless steel cookware.
•    Non-Stick:  The Teflon coatings are basically inert.  Teflon is used as part of heart implants mechanisms.  And, although they can lose their non-stick qualities with hard use, there is no reason to throw a nicked or scratched pan away.  Even if you consumed a little piece of the resin in your food, it would pass unchanged through your body.
•    Copper:  Don’t use unlined copper cookware.  Enough copper can dissolve into your food to cause illness.  Copper cookware, which is lined with stainless steel or tin, is fine and often desirable because copper on the bottom of the pan is a great heat conductor.

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