Friday, May 21, 2010

Market Inspirations—Asparagus, White Top Turnips, Wild Garlic & Early Green Beans

One of my favorite methods for preparing spring vegetables is to gently stew them in a bit of butter, olive oil or bacon/pancetta fat. Boiling or blanching can literally water down the already subtle flavors of spring vegetables. Gently cooking in fat with little or no added liquid enhances and concentrates flavor. This isn't to say that I don't blanch spring vegetables. Frequently I do. But if you have never had asparagus or a baby turnip cooked in nothing but a little butter and the liquid exuded by the vegetable itself, you will be amazed at the depth of flavor this method will produce.

At least once a week during asparagus season we eat some variation on a pasta primavera of gently sizzled asparagus and spring onions:

Sometimes enhanced with bacon or lemon zest. Almost always including herbs—ever changing combinations of chives, tarragon, thyme, parsley, arugula, or even sage (which is soft and delicate this time of year). Frequently sprinkled with toasted pine nuts. Almost always finished with cheese. Generally this means pecorino or parmesan, but this year I have been taken with placing blobs of whole milk ricotta over the dressed pasta in the pan and letting it sit for a minute or two to warm up—a trick I picked up from a summer squash pasta in Deborah Madison's Local Flavors . I don't stir the ricotta in, I just scoop the pasta out and we mix the ricotta in as we eat. 

For the last couple of weeks, Thane Palmberg has had white top turnips at his stand at the market. They appear for a short while during the spring and will return for another brief spell in the fall. They are pretty special turnips—tender, sweet, almost buttery in texture when cooked. I heard one of Thane's assistants tell a customer last week that they are good raw, but I love them so much cooked, I haven't eaten them raw....maybe next week.

For dinner last night, I cooked the turnips in some butter along with some spring onions and a little wild garlic and then tossed them with some blanched green beans. The wild garlic was given to me to try by the woman working at Thane's stand. I have never cooked with it before. It smells quite strong when raw, but the effect when cooked was subtle (but I only used one bulb since I had been advised that it was strong) and pleasant.

The green beans came from the same farmer who has been providing the beautiful strawberries I have been bringing home each week. Together with some simple sautéed pork chops, they made a lovely spring dinner.

To me, this is what local, seasonal cooking is all about. It is about going to the market each week and filling my market bag with the things that I love to eat. Then dinner is often just a matter of opening the refrigerator and allowing the ingredients to be my inspiration. Complicated methods and seasonings (while occasionally fun and interesting) aren't necessary.

Turnips with Spring Onions & Green Beans

Trim and peel some white top turnips. Cut them into wedges. Clean and mince some spring onions (and some wild garlic if you can get it—but don't skip this dish if you don't have any wild garlic). Melt some butter in a sauté pan over moderate heat. Add the turnips along with a pinch of salt and toss to coat in the butter. When the turnips begin to sizzle a bit, turn down the heat, cover and gently cook until the turnips are almost tender (10 to 15 minutes, or so). Add the spring onions and wild garlic and continue to cook at a gentle sizzle until the turnips and onions are completely tender. I generally uncover the pan for the last few minutes. It's OK if the turnips begin to caramelize a bit.

While the turnips cook, top and tail the green beans (use the same weight of green beans as you used of the turnips) and cut on the diagonal into 2- or 3-inch lengths. Drop the beans into boiling salted water and cook until tender (4 to 7 minutes, depending on how you like them done). Drain and add to the finished turnips and toss until the green beans are coated with the buttery spring onions. If you like, add some parsley or chives and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Taste and correct the seasoning and serve.

(Recipe adapted from Fresh from the Farmers' Market by Janet Fletcher)

Pasta with Asparagus & Spring Onions

2 to 3 T. olive oil or butter or a combination
2 to 4 spring onions, thinly sliced
grated zest of half a lemon (optional)
2 to 3 t. minced fresh tarragon, thyme or sage
6 to 8 oz. trimmed asparagus, sliced on the diagonal into 3” pieces
6 to 8 oz. linguine, fettuccine, penne, gemelli or farfalle
2 T. toasted pine nuts (optional)
¼ c. arugula chiffonade (optional)
2 T. minced chives or Italian flat-leaf parsley (optional)
Freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino
2 chive blossoms, if available

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, melt the butter with the oil in a wide skillet over low heat. Add the spring onions, the zest and herbs (if using) along with some salt; cook slowly, stirring occasionally.

When the water boils, add the asparagus and cook until partially tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Scoop it out, add it to the spring onions, and continue cooking. Cook the pasta until al dente; drain, reserving some of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the vegetables along with more oil if the pan seems dry. Increase the heat and stir in the pine nuts, arugula, & chives, if using. If the pasta seems dry, moisten with a bit of the pasta cooking liquid. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide the pasta among individual plates and sprinkle with a little grated cheese and the chive blossoms.  Serves 2.

• If available, stew a handful of peas or fava beans with the spring onions.
• If you prefer, don't blanch the asparagus. Instead, add the asparagus directly to the pan with the spring onions—it will take longer to cook, but will have a more concentrated flavor. When I do it this way, I cover the pan until the asparagus is about half to three-quarters cooked. I then finish cooking it uncovered. I generally start cooking the asparagus and drop the pasta when the asparagus is about half cooked. If the asparagus is tender and the pasta is not ready, just pull it to the side, off the heat, until the pasta is done.
• If you like, cook some minced bacon or pancetta first and use the rendered fat in place of some or all of the butter and olive oil.


Daphne said...

I noted your recommendations for reading and I just received my copy of Alice Waters - The Art of Simple Food today. Cannot wait to dig in!!!!

Paige said...

I hope you like it. It's my new favorite to give to people who are just starting out, but I think it's great for experienced cooks, too--I use it quite a bit.