Mexican corn on the cob with mayo, cotija, chile powder and a squeeze of lime.
Asparagus does not usually need to be peeled unless you get a particularly stringy spear. This is despite the many recipes that call for this step. If it’s really fresh it should be nice and tender. To double check: after you cut off the woody end, cut a small piece and eat it. Make your decision about peeling then. The exception is if you are doing the shaved salad below or using fresh white asparagus which should always be peeled according to Harold McGee and others.
If the white woody base is still there when you buy asparagus then this has to be removed. Either chop it off, or snap the asparagus by holding the bottom and near the top with your hands — the idea is that it should snap right at the point where it starts getting tough. Drawback to this is that you’ll probably waste more of the tender spear than if you just cut the tough white base off with a knife. To be sure that you are into the tender part cut off a little of the base and eat it to test.
There are lots of ways to successfully cook asparagus. The key no matter which method you use is to make sure that you don’t overcook. The goal of “crisp-tender” should always be in your mind. Time will of course depend on the thickness of the spear.
Blanching: Drop the trimmed spears into boiling salted water and cook until just tender. If not eating right away then plunge into cold water to stop the cooking and set the color. Old recipes sometimes called for using baking soda in the cooking water to help preserve the color and soften the vegetable. While the former might be nice the latter isn’t. Most of us like our asparagus with a firm texture. Also baking soda destroys acids like Vitamin C.
Steaming: Takes a little longer than blanching but the rationale is that it retains more nutrients. There are asparagus steamers on the market in which you place the asparagus vertically with a little water in the bottom. The thicker bottoms get more heat than the tops and in theory this will evenly cook the whole spear. I use my Chinese bamboo steamer with good results.
Grilling: One of the simplest and best ways, to my taste, to cook asparagus is to give it a light coating of olive oil and grill it. Grilling brings out the sweetness and I prefer it to steaming or boiling which seems to bring out more of the “vegetal” notes. I’m convinced too that keeping the asparagus away from water seems to minimize that interesting condition called “asparagus pee”. I won’t go any further but see if it works for you!
Roasting: Similar to grilling except in the oven. Place the oiled and seasoned spears in a loose single layer on a baking sheet and either cook in a hot oven (450 degrees or more) or cook under a preheated broiler until just begin to brown. You’ll need to turn them a couple of times.
Stir Frying: You’ll need to cut the asparagus stalks into shorter lengths and then stir fry. You can either blanch the asparagus before stir frying which will cut down on time or you can just do it from raw. Up to you.
Microwaving: A great way of cooking asparagus which both preserves color and minimizes nutrient loss. Rinse, place in a microwave proof bowl, cover with plastic and cook till its crisp tender.
And now some recipes to try. Enjoy!
ASPARAGUS FRIES WITH SMOKED PAPRIKA AIOLI
The sweet spot for frying anything is 350 – 375 degrees. Ideally you should have a deep fry thermometer of some kind to regulate. If you don’t you can use a small cube of fresh bread to test or, as my grandmother did, put the handle end of a wooden spoon into the hot oil and if it bubbles nicely you are good to go. It’s important here to peel the asparagus so that the coating will stick to it.
3 cups or so vegetable oil for frying
1 pound or so big but tender asparagus peeled spears, woody ends removed (see side bar)
3/4 cup flour seasoned generously with salt and pepper
2 large eggs beaten with 2 tablespoons water
2 medium limes
1 cup panko bread crumbs
Smoked paprika aioli (recipe follows)
Heat the oil in a small saucepan to 375 degrees.
Test the asparagus to make sure it’s not tough or stringy. If so peel it first using a vegetable peeler. Cut asparagus into 2-inch lengths.
Place seasoned flour on a small plate. In a small bowl combine the egg mixture with the juice of one of the limes. Cut the other lime into 6 wedges. Place the panko on another small plate.
Dredge the asparagus first in the flour and shake off any excess. Then, dip into the egg mixture and finally into the panko to nicely coat. Fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove and drain briefly on paper towels. Serve immediately with the lime wedges and the smoked paprika aioli.
Smoked Paprika Aioli
Makes about 3/4 cup
4 large poached garlic cloves
1 tablespoon or so olive oil
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons smoked paprika or to taste
Drops of lemon juice to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Add all ingredients to a mini food processor and pulse till smooth. Store refrigerated for at least 1 hour to allow flavors to blend before using.
ASPARAGUS, POTATO AND PECORINO GRATIN
Serves 8 – 10 as a side dish
You’ll note there is no cream or milk in this variation of scalloped potatoes. It’s very simple to do and you could add some chopped fresh or sun dried tomatoes and other herbs if you liked. Be sure to use a fragrant, fruity olive oil for best results.
2-1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
2 pounds young asparagus, woody ends discarded and cut into 1-inch lengths
3/4 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil
2 cups coarse bread crumbs such as panko
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2-1/2 cups finely grated Pecorino cheese (about 6 ounces)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1-1/2 cups pitted and chopped black olives such as Cerignola or Oil Cured
Bring 6 – 8 quarts of salted* water to a boil. Slice the potatoes into 1/4-inch thick rounds add to boiling water, cook for 2 minutes and then remove with a strainer and cool on a baking sheet. In the same boiling water, blanch asparagus for 2 minutes, drain, run under cold water to stop the cooking and set the color. Set aside.
Oil a 3 quart, 3-inch deep baking dish with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. In a separate bowl mix the bread crumbs with the parsley, thyme and the Pecorino. Spread 1/3 of the potatoes in a single layer in the bottom of the baking dish, season generously with salt and pepper and top with 1/3 of the bread crumb mixture. Spread half of the asparagus and olives over this along with a third of the remaining olive oil and top with another layer of the potatoes, duplicating the first layer. Top with the final layer of potatoes and the bread crumbs drizzled with remaining olive oil.
Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 60 minutes or until potatoes are tender and top is golden brown. Serve warm.
* For blanching use sea salt and add enough so that water tastes like the ocean.
I have fond memories of wild asparagus growing up on my Grandparents ranch in Colorado. The ranch was at the base of Mt. Princeton, one of the Collegiate Peaks and also one of Colorado’s 53 “fourteeners” (mountains more than 14,000 feet high). The ranch was at about 8000 feet and winters were pretty harsh at that altitude. Seeing wild asparagus pop up, usually in early to mid April, was a sure sign that the weather was finally going to warm up and summer was on the horizon.
My Grandmother and I would pick the wild asparagus and eat much of it raw, right on the spot. If you’ve never had just picked asparagus, it has any amazing sweet/green flavor, something that you don’t get with cultivated asparagus. Raw is still one my favorite ways of eating asparagus but it must be just picked to take advantage of its natural sweetness. Of course there are all kinds of ways to prepare asparagus beyond just steaming the spears whole. We’d have it every day until its short season was over. The following recipe, and all of the recipes in this series have their genesis in dishes my Grandmother created with asparagus, so this is really an homage to her!
SHAVED RAW ASPARAGUS SALAD WITH PECORINO AND HAZELNUTS
Serves 6 – 8 as a side salad
You could use this same approach with artichokes or Brussels sprouts. Once dressed, the shaved asparagus shouldn’t marinate for more than 15 minutes or so because it loses it crisp texture. If your asparagus has a tough skin then you’ll want to peel it completely before shaving. If not then follow instructions below and just shave off and discard 2 sides of it.
3/4 pound fresh asparagus (preferably larger rather than smaller), woody ends discarded Honey lemon vinaigrette (recipe follows)
3 cups young arugula and/or upland cress (about 2 ounces)
1/2 cup peeled, toasted and chopped hazelnuts
2 – 3 ounces thinly shaved pecorino (use a vegetable peeler)
Cut off tips of asparagus and set aside in a large bowl. Lay asparagus flat on cutting board and shave one side of it with a vegetable peeler and discard this first shaving. Turn to other side and repeat. Now shave remaining thinly and place in the bowl. Dress generously with some of the vinaigrette and let it sit for 10 – 15 minutes for flavors to marry and asparagus to soften just a little.
Add arugula and hazelnuts along with a little more dressing and toss with asparagus. Arrange attractively on plates and top with the shaved pecorino. Serve immediately.
Honey Lemon Vinaigrette
Makes 1 generous cup
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
6 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons fragrant honey
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Whisk all ingredients together and season with salt and pepper. Store covered and refrigerated up to 3 days.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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!