BELLOWS FALLS—Just about the time you can’t face cooking another root vegetable, the beautiful green spears of asparagus start peeking out of the newly warmed soil. On a warm day, you can almost watch them grow.
It’s just about time! We know we will have them only for a short time, so we eat our fill while we can.
I resist buying anything but local. The intense flavor of this fresh vegetable is vastly superior to anything trucked in from other parts of the country (or world), and that first bite of the season is a marvelous reward for my patience!
You don’t have to do much to asparagus; it delights in simplicity. Choose firm spears with tightly closed heads and a bright, even color. No shriveled stalks or loose tops, please. They should look good enough to eat raw, and if they do, they probably will be! Just chop them up and add to a salad.
It does not matter if your spears are large or pencil thin; it’s all delicious. The cooking is all about the timing, according to size; overcook them, and they will become grey and slimy, so test as you go.
For me, asparagus is best when the spears just start to get tender but are still crisp and not stringy. But cook them to your own preference.
Peel or cut off only the toughest ends. (Save for stock if you like.) Roast or grill them quickly to bring out the most flavor. Simple is best — add only a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and a watchful eye. Or steam and quickly plunge the stalks into ice water to set the beautiful color and stop the cooking.
Make a large batch to save time in the kitchen for the next day’s meals. Add these tasty, planned “leftovers” to omelets, frittatas, salads, soups, and sandwiches, or just toss them with vinaigrette and serve as a side.
Leftover grilled asparagus easily finds a home in a special looking tart that is easy to make using prepared puff pastry and whatever favorite melting cheese you prefer.
Does your family love asparagus with traditional Hollandaise sauce? If you are pressed for time on a weeknight, substitute mayonnaise you have thinned with a little lemon juice, mixed with some lemon zest and lots of black pepper. I doubt anyone will complain.
One of my favorite brunch starters is simple grilled asparagus placed on a dish with a pot of lemon mayonnaise and a little pile of salt. It is pretty to behold — and quite tasty. A few shavings of fresh spring radish add color and a peppery pop. This recipe can be served individually, or made into a beautiful salad for a buffet.
If it is too cold outside to fire up the grill, use your panini maker or grill pan! This is always a hit with our guests because people love to eat with their fingers. In place of mayonnaise, you can use softened butter blended with a few herbs, such as the first chives from the garden, which are now making their appearance as well.
‘Cream’ of roasted asparagus soup
One of my favorite recipes is the easiest — a hearty soup that contains no dairy, gluten, soy, nuts, or meat, and not much fat as well! It satisfies just about every dietary requirement your family can throw at you.
This soup recipe uses no cream at all, but most people wouldn’t guess. In fact, it has only two ingredients and water, and you can even make it without the onion! It is, however, extremely flavorful and rich tasting. You use every inch of your vegetables in this; nothing goes to waste!
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees and place your roasting pan or cooking sheet in to heat up along with the oven.
Rinse and dry:
¶2 bunches of local asparagus
Remove only the toughest ends of the largest spears.
Slice in half from pole to pole:
¶1 medium sweet onion
Peel the onion and place the peels into a small saucepan, along with those woody ends of asparagus and:
¶3 cups of water
Bring to a simmer. This step is not essential; you can use just water, but why not use these trimmings to extract a little more flavor?
Brush the heated roasting pan with olive oil. Add the onion. Roast for 8 minutes.
Rub the reserved asparagus spears with a little olive oil. When the timer goes off for the onions, turn them over, add the asparagus to the pan, and set your timer for another 8 minutes. If your asparagus is really large, add another minute; if really small, check at 6 minutes; or, if a mix, place the largest spears in first and add the smaller ones a few minutes later.
Once the asparagus is cooked, set aside to cool.
In the meantime, strain the quick asparagus stock you just made.
Reserve a few of the prettiest tips to use for garnish, if you like. Roughly chop the rest of the spears and place in the food processor and pulse.
With the motor running, drizzle in the stock until you reach the desired consistency. You might not need it all, and you might need to add a little water until you get it where you want it, it is all up to your own preference, and how big the bunches of asparagus were! Taste and add salt and pepper to your own liking.
You can also do step in smaller batches in the blender, or use a hand-immersion blender.
To serve, garnish with the asparagus tips and perhaps a beautiful little pansy fresh from the garden!
Spring asparagus tart
This tart is quick enough for a casual weeknight supper and showy enough for entertaining. Puff pastry from the freezer section makes this simple recipe work; just remember to take the dough out the night before to thaw in the refrigerator.
I’ve tried many variations of the tart over the years, and I am split over adding other vegetables. Most days, I prefer it best with the asparagus as the sole star of the dish, but a little sprinkle of sautéed or grilled leeks, mild onions, or mushrooms are a nice enhancement.
If you are lucky enough to find some local morel mushrooms, I’d definitely invite this spring treasure.
You can substitute cream cheese or ricotta for the crème fraîche, and Gruyère for the cheddar. You can even substitute blanched fiddlehead ferns for the asparagus!
This is one recipe where I pick through to find spears of similar size simply because I want it to look pretty.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Roast or grill:
¶1 small bunch asparagus spears
These can be leftover from another use or prepared just for the recipe.
Roll out to about 10 in. x 16 in.:
¶1 sheet thawed puff pastry
Place on a lightly greased cookie sheet, or line a cookie sheet with parchment.
Score the pastry about 1 in. from each edge, the full length of each side, with a sharp knife. You want to cut nearly, but not all the way, through.
With a fork, prick all around the center of the pastry. This docking will cut down on the puffing of the center, which you don’t want. The border will puff up and form a side to the tart, which you do want.
Place pastry in the preheated oven and bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and reduce the heat to 400 degrees. Using your fork again, prick around the center to get rid of any large puffs or bubbles that formed. Let this cool.
Once the pastry is cool, mix:
¶4 ounces crème fraîche
¶1 large organic egg
¶A few grates of nutmeg
¶Salt and pepper to taste
Spread this mixture onto the bottom of the cooled tart, and arrange your asparagus on top, tightly packed together but in a single layer. Top with:
¶2 ounces or so of grated cheddar cheese
You can stop right here, or add:
¶1 leek, or small sweet onion, thinly sliced and sautéed
Bake at 425 for about 6 minutes, or just until the cheese melts and tart filling puffs a little. If the sides start to brown too quickly, cover them with foil.
Let cool slightly and cut into desired size. You can cut this up really small for a party appetizer, or larger for a meal, served with a simple salad. You can also make this into individual tartlets. Serve warm, or room temperature.