April 28th, 2014

Asparagus Times Two

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Some plants suffered mightily at the hands of this extreme winter. All over town, rosemary, the size of bushes, died in single digit freezes. Fig trees still look skeletal, no promise of buds yet. But winter’s harshness seems to have brought about an unforeseen benefit for others. Dogwoods, redbuds, crab apple, cherry trees have burst out in vivid profusion. Thickets of narcissus, tulips and iris are in glorious bloom.

It has been hard on our farmer friends. John’s strawberry crop was threatened by an April 15th freeze. Thank goodness he got all the plants covered with plastic the day before–a trying task for sure. Tally notes that her rows of spring vegetables are coming along…however slowly. In comparison to years past, everything is delayed by at least three weeks.

But, I am heartened by warmer days and blooming trees. Soon, plantings of beautiful lettuces will be big as bouquets.

Already, feathery leaves and tender spears are emerging in asparagus beds.

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There was a time when you only ate asparagus in season. Over the past two decades or more that shifted, with the globalization of commerce, and produce from far-flung places got shipped in. Asparagus in December! Tomatoes in February! I am glad that we are returning to the practice of eating seasonally. We appreciate the fruits and vegetables all the more, at their peak, in their time, grown in their locale. Indeed, they taste better.

A long time ago, (pre-globalization!) I remember a very fun Asparagus Dinner that I attended, actually helped prepare. It was hosted by our friend Lanny, who lived in a decrepit warehouse on Second Avenue near Nashville’s riverfront. Lanny was a graphic artist, stained glass craftsman, Karman Ghia mechanic, architectural antique collector, consummate barterer and all-around wheeler-dealer.

His warehouse home/studio was a remarkable chaotic assemblage of these passions. You never asked where he got any of it, but, be assured, there was a story behind it all. Curiously, in one of his deals of the day, he had acquired 8 big bundles of freshly cut spears. Soon to follow was the call for Asparagus Dinner. About a dozen of us showed up to wash, peel, trim, snap, steam, blanch, and stir-fry the formidable stack.

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This was sometime in the early 1980’s. Our menu reflected the cooking tastes of the time. I remember some of what we whipped up: old school hollandaise sauce to nap over steamed asparagus, creme fraiche-dill sauce as a dip for blanched-chilled spears, and a creamy pasta primavera sort of dish laced with crabmeat. I remember that it was all delicious, this asparagus feast.

With asparagus as the centerpiece, we celebrated spring.

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Today, I am offering two asparagus suggestions, both of which have a more modern spin: An asparagus salad dressed in gorgonzola vinaigrette, and asparagus roasted with a Persian-spiced pistachio blend. I love how different they are from each other: Cold and hot, pungent and fruity, crisp and toasty. For my friends who are not in love with asparagus officinalus: the gorgonzola dressing is delicious on salad greens alone—and the spiced pistachio would be just as incredible roasted onto cauliflower!

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Looking for other wonderful asparagus preparations? Here are a few to check out from springs gone by: Green Goddess Salad, luscious springtime Risotto, and Asparagus-Dill Potato Salad

Wishing you all the flavors of young spring green things!

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ASPARAGUS AND SPRING GREENS WITH GORGONZOLA VINAIGRETTE (adapted from Cooking Light)
1 bundle fresh asparagus (about 1 pound), cleaned, trimmed, and cut on the diagonal into thirds
2 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
2 tablespoons minced chives
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola, divided
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 pound mixed spring lettuces

Fill a large skillet or pot with water. Stir in 2 teaspoons salt and bring to a boil on medium high heat.
Plunge in the asparagus pieces and cook for one minute–no more than two minutes (depending on how fat or thin the spears are)
Drain and place into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and set the bright green color. When well-cooled, drain the spears and set aside.

Make the vinaigrette:
Place 1/4 teaspoon salt, minced chives, white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, lemon zest, black pepper and 1/4 cup gorgonzola crumbles into a medium mixing bowl. Whisk until well combined.

Place spring greens, asparagus and pine nuts into a large bowl. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss until all ingredients are well-coated. Sprinkle with remaining gorgonzola crumbles and serve.

Serves 4

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ROASTED ASPARAGUS WITH PERSIAN-PISTACHIO COATING
1 bundle asparagus spears (about 1 pound) washed, dried, and trimmed
olive oil
1/2 cup toasted pistachios, finely ground
1/4 cup sumac (available at ethnic markets)
3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Drizzle olive oil (2-3 tablespoons) onto a baking sheet. Lay the asparagus spears onto the pan and roll, coating the spears with the oil. Add more oil if needed.

In a small bowl, mix the finely ground pistachios, sumac, thyme, salt and pepper together. Spread this mixture over the asparagus.

Place into the oven and roast for about 15 minutes. Spears will be tender-crisp and the nut mixture will be toasty.

Serves 4-6

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Serves 4

Posted in Gluten Free, Recipes, Salads, Vegetables, Vegetarian Dishes | 15 Comments »




April 7th, 2014

Spring Supper: Fennel braised Pork, Beets-and-Blue Salad

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One Sunday last spring when we were visiting our friends in Rome, we had the good fortune to accompany them on an outing to the small municipality, Pisoniano, a fifty minute drive east of the Eternal City. Their good friends had invited us to spend the day. Our host, Serge, an architect, had been born in this charming hill town. He knew everyone, and held the title as its unofficial mayor.

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This particular Sunday felt magical. On this sun-filled day, the town was celebrating L’ Infiorata, or Flower Art Festival. Through the center of the main street ran a long series of “organic mosaics.” Each one was a vibrantly colored image or symbol of Christian faith created out of flower petals, stems, and seeds. Townspeople and visitors such as ourselves, families and friends, gathered to spend the afternoon enjoying the art and fellowship.

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Each intricate image was connected to next, forming a brilliant carpet over the cobbles–a carpet you dared not step on! As meticulous and ephemeral as Tibetan sand paintings, each work was a collaborative effort created over thirty-six hours leading up to the festival. No doubt, there were many months in preparation.

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After we spent time strolling the flower carpet sidelines, examining each tableau, astonished by the color, texture, and attention to detail, we all went to lunch at Trattoria Bacco. This was no ordinary meal, but one that had been designed by the chefs in keeping with the season and the celebration. Our multi-coursed luncheon began around 1pm and lasted for three hours!

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We began our leisurely meal with a plate of antipasta: folds of prosciutto over melon, wrinkled pungent olives, a whip of ricotta, bites of radish. The pacing of service was slow and deliberate. It allowed for lively conversation–eight of us at a community dining table– and time to savor each dish.

We were able to enjoy our company and each course without feeling stuffed–well, at least, not until the end. The servers brought platters of house made ravioli cloaked in red sauce, followed by Tonnarelli alla Verdure, a Roman square-cut egg pasta tossed with seasonal green vegetables: spinach, artichoke, scallions, and small peas.

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The supper’s centerpiece was a pork dish, Coscio di Maiale, a fresh ham long simmered in a wealth of garlic, bay leaf, and fennel seeds. Fresh rosemary and thyme were also in the mix, playing background roles.

The meat was sumptuous; juicy and fatty in its fragrant brown gravy. It was that trio–garlic, bay leaf and toasted fennel seeds, remarkable in combination, assertive in amount, that made the pork shine.

Inspiration! I knew that I would have to make this when I returned home.

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I haven’t recreated the dish perfectly, not yet.

A fresh ham is not always available at our market, and this cut, with its bones, rich meat and layers of fat, is key to the dish. For my first try, I used a different cut, the sirloin tip. No bones, little fat. Nonetheless, the pork was delicious. And, the gravy, the result of browning then braising hunks of pork with that trio, came close to my remembrance. What a pleasure to have the connection of food, place, and memory: spending a leisurely Sunday afternoon, in the company of family and friends, at the table, doing as the Romans do.

Quantities for both pork and salad recipes are for a large group—10 to 15. With spring here at last, you might be having family and friends over to celebrate. Take time on a Sunday afternoon to relax and dine and visit.

Also, with beets being such a versatile vegetable for spring and fall, be sure to check out Cooking Light’s Guide to Beets for care, storage, growing, and preparation.

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PORK BRAISED WITH GARLIC, BAY LEAF, AND TOASTED FENNEL SEED
8 lb. boneless pork roast, such as sirloin tip
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
kosher salt
coarse ground black pepper
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 bulb (8-10 cloves) garlic, peeled and sliced
4-5 bay leaves
4 tablespoons fennel seed, lightly toasted
sprig or 2 of rosemary
4 sprigs thyme
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Rub the oil all over the piece(s) of meat. Liberally season with salt and black pepper.

Heat a Dutch oven on medium. Brown the meat on all sides, rotating the piece(s) every 5 minutes. This could take 15-20 minutes.
When the meat is almost finished browning, add the sliced garlic. Continue to cook for 3 minutes, then dust the flour over the meat.
Rotate the piece(s) around in the pan, so that the flour browns a bit.

Pour in water–2-3 cups—enough to almost cover the meat. Stir, loosening up the browned bits on the bottom and sides of the pot.
Plunge in the bay leaves, fennel seed, rosemary, thyme and red pepper flakes.
Cover and reduce the heat to medium low. Let the pork cook, undisturbed, for 1 1/2-2 hours.

Remove the meat and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before slicing.

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Increase the heat on the pot to medium high, stirring the remaining sauce, allowing it to reduce and slightly thicken.
Slice the meat and pour the sauce over it. Pour extra sauce into a gravy boat or bowl.

Delicious with roasted potatoes or rice.

Makes 12-15 servings

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BEETS AND BLUE SALAD
1/2 pound spring lettuces
3 ruby beets, roasted, peeled and chilled
2 oranges or 4 clementines, peeled, sectioned, sliced
1/2 cup sliced red onion
4 ounces crumbled blue cheese

Place a layer of lettuces on a platter. Slice the beets and arrange over the lettuces, followed by a ring of sliced citrus, and red onion.
Sprinkle crumbled blue cheese. Repeat the layering.

Drizzle with Sweet Heat Dressing and serve.

Serves 8-10

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SWEET HEAT DRESSING
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon minced jalapeno
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup olive oil

Place all of the ingredients into a pint jar. Screw on the lid tightly and shake well. Drizzle over the salad.
Serves 8-10

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Posted in Meats/Poultry, Recipes, Salads | 18 Comments »