Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mixed Berry Crumble Bars

I mentioned in my last post that unless I'm in the midst of testing a recipe (for a class...or a client...) frequent repeats don't show up on our table too often. But recently I made the same batch of bar cookies—Mixed Berry Crumble Bars—several times (three? four?...I lost count) within a very short span of time. First I wanted to use up some odds and ends of frozen berries to make space in my freezer. Then I wanted to make something to take to a casual dinner at my brother's house and the Mixed Berry Bars were fresh in my mind. And then... I can't remember why I made them again. I think it might have been that I was just hungry for them. But every single one is gone now... and it occurs to me they are a cookie that more people should know how to make.

Mixed Berry Crumble Bars are a homey little cookie made up of a simple crumble of butter, flour, sugar and oats sandwiched around a cooked fruit filling. Variations abound. Martha Stewart published a recipe in her book Cookies that uses a compote of dried cherries and apples for the filling. If you are from Canada, Australia or the U.K., you might recognize these cookies as something called a Matrimonial Bar. Matrimonials are typically filled with a cooked date compote—but I have seen them filled with a cooked dried apricot compote. Sometimes you will find them made with jam—store bought or homemade. (Gloria at The Gingersnap Girl published a delicious looking Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam version a little over a year ago.)

My recipe is based upon a bar cookie I learned to make while working at a pastry shop called The Pastry Goddess. There, these bars were called "Berry Betty Bars". They were more like a crisp than a cookie—thick and substantial and so large that one was big enough to be dessert. They were delicious and very popular. I have altered the recipe a bit...and made it more petite. I have kept the delicious mixed berry compote filling that we used to use, but obviously you can fill them with just about anything you like—dried fruit compote, fresh/frozen fruit compote, homemade/store bought jam...even fruit butter (check out the tasty looking version Katrina at Baking & Boys made with fresh apples and apple butter).

If you have never made a sandwiched crumble bar cookie, I encourage you to give this one a try.  I have never met anyone who didn't like them.  They are extremely easy to make, and since they freeze beautifully are easy to keep on hand.  One or two make a great afternoon or late-night snack.  And they are especially good for satisfying that craving for "just a little something" sweet after lunch or dinner. You will also find that they are sturdy and therefore quite packable--making them excellent for taking to a picnic or a pot luck...or tucking into a lunchbox...or a brief case....

Mixed Berry Crumble Bars

Cookie Base and Crumble Topping:
2 c. all purpose flour (8 oz.)
1 1/2 c. quick or old fashioned oats (4.5 oz.)
1/2 c. sugar (3.5 oz.)
1/2 c. golden brown sugar (3.5 oz.)
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/2 lb. melted butter

Mixed Berry Filling:
12 oz. frozen mixed berries, thawed
135 grams (2/3 c.) sugar
1 T. lemon juice

Make the crumble: In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Add the melted butter and stir until well blended and crumbly. Press half of the crumble mixture (about 400 grams/14 oz.) into the bottom of a quarter sheet pan or a 13x9-inch baking pan. Chill the remaining crumble mixture until ready to use.

Make the berry filling: Place berries in a medium saucepan along with the sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a simmer. Cook until thickened (about 10 to 12 minutes)—you should have about 1 1/4 cups (340 grams) of thick berry compote.

At this point, there are a couple of ways to proceed for building and baking the bars:

Method 1 (pre-bake the crust): Place the crust in a preheated 350° oven and bake until puffed and golden—10 to 15 minutes. Set aside while you make the compote. Spread the hot compote over the baked crust (it should cool for about 10 minutes before topping with the warm compote) and evenly scatter the chilled, reserved crumble over the berry compote. Return to the oven and bake until golden brown and firm—25 to 35 minutes.

Method 2: After pressing the crust into the pan, chill the crust and crumble. Chill the compote until cold. Spread the cold compote over the chilled (unbaked) crust and scatter the reserved crumble over all. Bake in a preheated 350° oven until golden brown and firm—35 to 45 minutes.

The first method is good if you want to make the crumble and compote and bake immediately. The second method works well if you want to make the components (crumble and compote) ahead. It also is the method you would use if you wanted to use a purchased jam or fruit butter for the filling instead of a homemade compote.

Let the bars cool. Flip out of the pan and then back onto a cutting board. Cut into 24 bar cookies or 40 petit fours (I prefer this smaller size). Place the bars on a double thickness of paper towels for a few minutes to absorb excess butter. If you like, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

(Recipe adapted from The Pastry Goddess)

Note: If you prefer a softer, more cake-like texture to your Mixed Berry Crumble Bars, use cold butter instead of melted butter. Slice the butter into 1/4-inch slices. Using your fingers (or a pastry blender) to rub/cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is homogenous and crumbly/clumpy. Use building and baking method 2.

Holiday Variation (22 December 2012):  Use a thick cranberry compote (8 oz. cranberries, 2/3 cup sugar and 3 T. orange juice.  Put everything in a saucepan and bring to a brisk simmer over high heat.  Reduce the heat to medium/medium-high and simmer briskly until thickened...about 5 minutes) instead of the mixed berry compote.  Scatter 1 1/2 to 2 oz. of chopped white chocolate over the compote before topping with the remaining crumbs.  

Printable Version

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Asparagus & Spring Onion Alfredo Sauce

Fettuccine Alfredo has been one of my favorite things to eat for as long as I can remember.   Butter...Cream...Cheese...Noodles.... How could I not love it?

Most of the time I don't mess with this simplest of sauces too much. But recently I made a version with spring onions and asparagus that was so good we had it twice within the span of one week. Unless I'm testing a recipe, we don't usually do repeats with such frequency. But this was that good.

This spring I have come to appreciate the taste of cream infused with the flavor of spring onions. I'm sure I have been enjoying this combination for years, but for some reason, this year I noticed it.... So it's a combination that has been showing up on our table a lot recently (in vegetable ragoûts, pasta sauces, gratins, etc.).

A little over a week ago when I walked into the kitchen to start dinner, I had pretty much decided we were going to have Fettuccine Alfredo. I was pressed for time and in a bad mood. This is not a proper frame of mind in which to cook...but it is the kind of day for which Fettuccine Alfredo was created: Cooking it solves my time problem. Eating it solves my mood problem.

As I was pulling out the ingredients I realized with a twinge of guilt that I had a drawer full of beautiful produce from the market that I really ought to be using.  It was then that it occurred to me that the flavor of the spring onions melted into the cream would make for a wonderful sort of Alfredo sauce....  I thought asparagus would only make it better.

Including these two spring vegetables in my Alfredo sauce added only a few moments to my time spent at the stove. And it was worth every second. I was spared the guilt that I might have felt if I had left those lovely spring onions and asparagus languishing in the produce drawer... And just like when I make it's slightly more streamlined namesake, eating it made me very happy.

Farfalle with Asparagus, Spring Onions & Alfredo Sauce

2 medium-sized spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced (white, plus a few inches of green)
3 T. Unsalted butter
1/2 c. Heavy cream
3 1/2 oz. (trimmed weight) asparagus, cut into 2 inch lengths
1 1/2 oz. finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino (or a combination)
6 to 7 oz. Farfalle

In a medium sized sauté pan set over moderate heat, melt 2 T. of the butter. Add the spring onions along with a pinch of salt and cook until softened. Add the cream. Bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Drop the asparagus into a large pot of rapidly boiling salted water. Cook until just tender—two minutes or so. Using a mesh skimmer or sieve, lift the asparagus out of the pot and spread on a kitchen towel. Return the water to a boil and add the pasta. Cook until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the cooking liquid.

Return the cream sauce to moderate heat and bring back to a simmer. Add the asparagus and swirl in the remaining tablespoon of butter.

Add the pasta and toss to coat. Toss in the cheese, reserving a couple of tablespoons to sprinkle over the plated pasta.

If the pasta sauce seems tight, add enough pasta water to create a fluid sauce that lightly coats the noodles and asparagus. Correct the seasoning with salt & freshly ground black pepper. Toss again and serve. Serves 2.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Salad of Potatoes, Sugar Snap Peas & Arugula

More than any other time of the year, Spring is when dinner practically makes itself. The young and tender foods available in the stores and at the market require very little from the cook....the greatest pitfall is to do too much and mask their subtle charm. Today's post is in the spirit of this ideal...a beautiful little salad that almost doesn't even need a recipe...just a few techniques. We had it for dinner on a busy night this past week: baby potatoes, sugar snap peas and young arugula. It could hardly have been easier (or tastier).

For the potatoes I used Melissa's brand Baby Dutch Yellow Potatoes. Local true new potatoes are still more than a month away, but in the mean time, these are a reliably good little waxy potato that work very well in a salad. To prepare them I simply steamed them whole. If you prefer, you could cook them by boiling them, but steaming seems to do a better job of cooking them through without encouraging them to fall apart.

As soon as the potatoes were cool enough to handle (almost immediately) I halved them and tossed them with some salt and vinegar. Adding plain vinegar (without any oil) to the warm potatoes is a little trick that will make any potato salad you make more flavorful—whether ultimately dressed with a classic vinaigrette or a mayonnaise-based dressing. The warm potatoes readily absorb the vinegar, seasoning them throughout.

Warm potatoes with vinegar and salt
After the potatoes have had a chance to absorb the vinegar, the olive oil is added (along with the herbs)--adding the oil sooner would inhibit the absorption of the vinegar. At this point, this would make a simple and satisfying potato side dish.

This salad could be made with any number of the green vegetable in season during the Spring and early Summer months, but I chose to use sugar snaps because I happened to have some on hand. Sugar snap peas can be used in a salad raw, but it's nice to soften their crunch just a bit with a quick blanch—just until the water returns to the boil should be sufficient. If I were using asparagus or green beans, I would cook either of these a bit longer.

I finished the salad by tossing the vegetables with fresh herbs and serving them on a bed of arugula dressed with a tangy Dijon vinaigrette. This time of year, the herbs are soft and delicate—it's hard to use too many. I used just chives, but parsley, mint or tarragon (alone or in combination) would have been nice. If you happen to have a chive blossom or two, breaking them up and scattering the little individual lavender flowers over the salad would make a beautiful and zippy addition. The arugula I used was what I purchased at last week's market...and it was delicious (arugula is my favorite salad green), but this week I purchased a bag of mixed baby lettuces and they would have been equally good.

Accompanied by a simply prepared piece of chicken or fish, this salad makes a wonderful, light Spring entrée. Without the meat or fish, it would be a fine first course. When we had it, I served it for our dinner with some pan-seared steelhead salmon. The salmon, with its peachy-pink flesh, was particularly lovely against the beautiful greens of the Spring vegetables.

Potatoes & Snap Peas with Arugula

1 1/2 lbs. small waxy potatoes (Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold, Fingerling or Creamer-type)
2 T. red wine vinegar, divided
1 small to medium shallot, finely diced
1 t. Dijon Mustard
Salt & Pepper
1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
3/4 to 1 lb. sugar snap peas, trimmed & halved on the diagonal
3 oz. Arugula, rinsed, dried & stemmed if necessary (weighed after removing the stems)
2 T. (or more) minced fresh chives (or parsley...or tarragon...or mint...or a combination)

Ingredients for salad for two

Scrub the potatoes. Steam over simmering water until tender to the tip of a knife—20 minutes or so, depending on their age and size. (If you prefer, you may instead cook the potatoes in boiling, salted water until tender. Drain well.) As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle halve or quarter them (depending on their size). If using fingerling, cut into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Place the potatoes in a bowl and pour 1 T. of vinegar over them along with salt & pepper to taste. Toss gently to combine. Let stand for 10 minutes or so to allow the warm potatoes to absorb the vinegar. Toss in the herbs and add 1/4 cup of olive oil and fold gently. Set aside.

While the potatoes are cooking, combine 1 T. of vinegar and the shallot in a small bowl; let sit for a few minutes to allow the vinegar to soften the shallots. Whisk in the mustard. Season to taste with salt & pepper. Gradually whisk in 1/4 cup of oil, adding it in a thin stream. Taste and correct the seasoning and the vinegar balance—the vinaigrette should be fairly sharp.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the snap peas and allow the water to return to the boil—about a minute. Drain and refresh under cold running water. Pat dry and set aside. (If cooked ahead, refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.)

To serve the salad, place the arugula in a medium-sized bowl. Season with salt & pepper and drizzle with a small amount of the vinaigrette. Toss carefully to coat. Mound the dressed arugula onto a serving platter (or divide among individual plates). Add the snap peas to the potatoes and toss. Add a bit of dressing if necessary. Taste and correct the seasoning. Mound the potatoes and snap peas on top of the arugula and scatter more herbs over all if you like (chive blossoms would be especially nice).

Serves 4 to 6 as an accompaniment to fish or chicken for an entrée. Serves 8 (or more) as part of a salad buffet.

Variation: Either asparagus or green beans (cut into two inch lengths on the diagonal and blanched in boiling salted water until tender) would make a fine substitute for the snap peas.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Kale & Ham Quiche plus a few Quiche Basics

I think kale may be my new favorite vegetable. It is not a vegetable that I have until recently gone much out of my way to use. If I wanted cooked greens, I usually looked in the direction of chard which is easy to clean, quick to cook and has only a mild hint of bitterness to it. But more and more I am reaching for kale. Whenever I use kale, I am struck by its intriguing and complex flavor—slightly bitter, slightly pungent...yet sweet when cooked long enough. Better yet, unlike chard (or spinach), when cooked to tenderness, kale retains some of its substance. Because there is one grower that reliably has beautiful young kale at my market right now, I will be enjoying it regularly for the next few weeks. This week I made a quiche. In looking back over my blog, I was surprised to discover that I have never written a "quiche basics" post. Since my kale quiche was exceptionally good, now seemed like a good time for that post.

Quiche falls into the category of preparations that I call 'vehicles' or 'blank canvases'. These are things that act as a basic foundation for a never ending parade of vegetables, meats, cheese, etc. Pasta and Pizza fall into this category. As do salad greens and grain pilafs. Learn the basic technique (how to make a quick pasta sauce...how to make pizza dough and build a pizza...how to build a pilaf or compose and dress a salad) and as long as you maintain a pantry that supports these basic 'vehicles' you will never be at a total loss when it comes to dinner.

For quiche, if you know how to make a crust and mix up a custard, and you then learn a few basic principles about how to build and bake a quiche, you can make a delicious quiche from just about anything you might have on hand or find at the market. Once you master the crust, everything else is easy (particularly if you get into the habit of keeping tart dough—raw in disk form, or rolled out in the pan—in your freezer).

Last year I wrote a post on how to make and roll out short crust pastry. The post was very long so I didn't include any information on how to pre-bake a crust. Knowing how to pre-bake (or "blind bake") a crust or tart shell is important because doing so insures that the final crust will be fully cooked and crisp—even when filled with very soft or wet ingredients (like egg custard). To blind bake a tart shell, line it with foil (dull side out) or parchment paper, pressing it into the corners, and fill it with a layer of pie weights. If you don't have (or don't wish to invest in) pie weights, you may use dried beans.  (I store a zip lock bag of dried beans alongside my tart pans. These beans can be used over and over again.) Bake the crust in a hot (400° to 425°) oven for 12 to 18 minutes. If the crust begins to puff up, simply use a towel or oven mitt to quickly press the crust back down. When the pastry begins to color on the edges and when you lift up the foil the crust underneath looks cooked (but with no color) remove the foil and weights and continue baking until the pastry dries out and turns a uniform golden brown color. Let the shell cool before filling.

A 9-inch removable bottom tart pan (the pan I typically use to make a quiche) will hold about four cups of custard and filling ingredients combined. The more custard you use the lighter the quiche will seem—whereas if the quiche is packed tightly with vegetables, meats, cheeses, etc., and consequently has less custard, it will give a heartier, more substantial impression. I prefer a quiche that contains about 1 1/3 cups of custard and about 2 to 2 1/2 cups of filling ingredients.

There are many recipes for basic custards and you should settle upon one that produces the result you prefer. The more eggs you use per cup of liquid, the firmer the final filling will be. One egg will set a cup of liquid, but it will be a very soft and jiggly set (which can be difficult to cut). I like a ratio of 2 eggs for every cup of liquid. This produces a fluffy custard that slices nicely. You will find some chefs that use as many as 4 eggs per cup of liquid—which produces a very firm, dense quiche. Two eggs plus one cup of liquid (my preferred ratio) will produce just about exactly 1 1/3 cup of custard...perfect for a nine inch quiche. But if you want the denser custard you would use 3 eggs plus 3/4 c. liquid for the same size pan.

The liquid that you use for your custard can be heavy cream, crème fraiche, half & half or whole milk (or some combination thereof). I use heavy cream (or crème fraiche, if I have it on hand). This produces the creamiest baked custard...and really, if you are cutting your quiche into six pieces (a very reasonable portion), this means each person will only be consuming a little over 2 1/2 T. of cream. I don't think that this is too much cream in the grand scheme of things.

Whatever filling ingredients you choose, they should always be cooked before going into the quiche. As they cook, vegetables give up water and meats/fish give up juices and fat. Both of these things will water down the custard...or worse, create a watery/fatty pocket around the vegetable or meat encased in the set custard. Neither is very nice. Also, if not pre-cooked, the probability that the vegetable or meat might not be fully cooked by the time the custard is set is great.

To build a quiche simply layer the cooked vegetables, meats and cheeses into the blind baked tart shell and pour the custard over. Gently jiggle the tart shell and use a fork (or your fingers) if necessary to adjust the filling ingredients a bit as you pour so that the custard will flow into all the nooks and crannies created by the filling ingredients. Be careful as you pour. You may not need all of the custard. It is better to discard a small amount of custard than to ruin the whole tart by pouring in so much custard that it overflows the shell. Any custard that overflows will burn on the exterior of the shell—effectively ruining some or all of the quiche.

There were lots of options open to me when I started looking around for something to combine with my kale when I made my quiche. A couple of years ago I posted a picture of a Swiss chard, potato and caramelized onion quiche. I remember that this was very good and so I toyed with the idea of making something similar with the kale. Potatoes and kale are a particularly good combination. But in addition to the kale, I had some spring onions that I wanted to use. I also had a little bit of ham that I thought would be nice. Salty foods (olives...anchovies...bacon...ham...) are good with greens. The ham was a perfectly timely addition too since so many people will have ham left over from their Easter dinners (quiche is a great place to use up leftover cooked meats/fish and vegetables).

As it turned out, I could have added a few roasted or steamed potatoes to my filling (and the combination of potatoes, kale and ham would have been great) because I ended up with slightly less than 2 cups of cooked filling ingredients. The kale and spring onions cooked down to just under a cup, and I had about a half cup of ham and a half cup of shredded cheese. I decided to go ahead and bake the quiche with slightly less filling than usual. I tell this mainly to emphasize how flexible quiches can be. If you want to add potatoes....or more custard...or just a bit more kale & ham...or bake it in an 8-inch shell...you can.

Once you begin to think of the crust and custard as a vehicle for other ingredients, you will be able to come up with all kinds of variations and combinations. And if you are short on ideas, I'm sure that in the future I will occasionally post a recipe for a quiche—inspired by the things I purchased at the farmer's market...or the leftovers in my pantry....

Kale & Ham Quiche

1 to 2 T. extra virgin olive oil
3 oz. smoked ham, rind removed and cut in a 1/2-inch dice (1/2 cup diced)
2 medium-sized spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced (white portion and several inches of the green)
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 lb. young kale, thoroughly rinsed and ribs removed
2 eggs
1 cup heavy cream
pinch of nutmeg (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
1 8- to 9-inch tart shell, blind baked (Pâte Brisée recipe below)
2 ounces coarsely grated Dubliner (or other flavorful cheddar-like cheese)

Warm a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a sauté pan set over moderately high heat. Add the ham and sauté until golden brown in spots—2 to 3 minutes. Remove the ham to a plate.

Add the spring onions and garlic along with a bit more oil if the pan looks dry. Season lightly with salt and sweat until just wilted—about 2 minutes.

Coarsely chop the kale. Add it to the pan a handful at a time, turning it as you do to coat it in the hot oil and adding another handful as the previous one begins to collapse. When all of the kale has been added, season lightly with salt. Reduce the heat, cover and cook until tender—about 20 to 30 minutes (possibly longer, depending on the age and variety of the kale). Check the kale occasionally as it cooks, adding a few tablespoons of water if the pan seems dry. When the kale is tender, remove the lid and increase the heat so that any liquid left in the pan can cook off. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the kale to cool briefly.

While the kale cooks, place the eggs in a small bowl and whisk briefly to break up. Whisk in the cream until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper (and nutmeg, if you like); set aside.

Spread the kale mixture over the bottom of the pre-baked tart shell. Scatter the ham over all. Place the tart shell on a cookie sheet and pour the custard over the filling—be careful, all of the custard may not be necessary. Scatter the cheese over the top and transfer the baking pan to a preheated 375° oven.

Bake the quiche until the filling is set and the surface is a light golden color—about 25 minutes. If, when the custard is set (the tip of a knife slipped into the center should come out clean), the surface is not as golden as you would like, briefly run the quiche under the broiler until the cheese is light golden brown.  Serves 8 as a first course or 4 to 6 as an entrée.

Pâte Brisée
(Savory Tart Dough)

1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour (150g)
3/8 t. salt
8 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (114g)
3 to 4 T. ice water

Combine the flour and the salt in a medium-sized bowl. Rub the butter into the flour until the butter is in small pea-sized pieces. Drizzle 3 T. ice water over the flour/butter mixture. Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water if necessary. If, when you squeeze some of the mixture it holds together, the dough is finished. Turn the dough out onto a counter and form into a mound. Using the heel of your hand, gradually push all of the dough away from you in short forward strokes, flattening out the lumps. Continue until all of the dough is flat. Using a bench scraper, scrape the dough off the counter, forming it into a single clump as you do. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, pressing into a thick disk. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

To roll out, let the dough warm up for a moment or two. Butter a 9- to 10-inch removable-bottom tart pan and set it aside. Flour the work surface and the rolling pin. Begin rolling from the center of the dough outward. After each stroke, rotate the dough a quarter turn—always making sure that there is sufficient flour to keep the dough from sticking. Keep rolling and turning until you have a round of dough that is about 1/8 to 1/6 –inch in thickness. Brush off the excess flour and fold the dough circle in half. Slide the outspread fingers of both hands under the dough and gently lift it and transfer it to the prepared tart pan. Unfold the dough and ease it into the pan being careful not to stretch it. Cut the dough off flush with the edge of the pan by pressing gently against the edge. Chill the shell for at least 1/2 hour.

To blind bake: Line the pastry with aluminum foil (dull side out) or parchment paper, pressing it into the corners and edges. Add a layer of pie weights or dried beans. Bake in a 400° to 425° oven for 12 to 18 minutes. When the pastry begins to color on the edges, remove the foil and weights and continue baking until the pastry dries out and turns a light golden color for a partially baked shell, and a deeper amber for a fully baked shell. Let cool before filling.

• The tart dough may be made ahead and frozen—raw in disk form, or rolled out in the pan (raw or baked).
• Any amount of dough may be made (to accommodate varying sizes of tart pans)—simply keep the ratio of ingredients the same. For every 1/3 c. of flour (1 1/3 oz., 38 gr.), use 2 T. of butter (1 oz., 28 gr.) and up to 1 T. of ice water.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Gift, a Favorite Method for Cooking Asparagus and a few Asparagus Basics

In my last post, while discussing this year's early asparagus season, I mentioned my friend Jenny who farms in the Lawrence area (I mentioned her because they began harvesting asparagus last week). In addition to farming, Jenny also works as a class assistant at The Community Mercantile in Lawrence. This week when she arrived to work a class that I was teaching, she brought me a gift...a beautiful bunch of asparagus from her farm. I couldn't wait to get home so I could make something with it. I had it for lunch the next day, simply cooked in butter and topped with some soft scrambled eggs with chives from my garden—a classic springtime treat.

The method I used to cook the asparagus is probably my favorite way to prepare asparagus...it really lets the asparagus shine. It is a simple method that Edna Lewis calls "skillet asparagus"; Patricia Wells refers to it as "braised asparagus".  Because there is no added liquid, the asparagus isn't really being braised—it is nearer to a technique Madeleine Kamman calls étuvéeing. I love this technique because the flavor of the finished asparagus is concentrated—rather than watered down as with boiling—and the texture is tender without being mushy.

The asparagus that Jenny brought me was exceptional...but I knew by looking at it that it was going to be good.

Jenny had told me that the asparagus had been recently harvested, but even if she hadn't told me, I would have known it had been cut fairly recently because the cut ends were still moist and had not yet begun to shrivel and harden. The spears were a beautiful deep green and were firm and crisp. Asparagus that is past its prime will be dull in color and will have begun to wither a bit and become limp due to loss of moisture. Finally the tips of the spears Jenny gave me were tightly packed and firm. Asparagus that has been hanging around too long after harvest will have soft, sometimes even slimy, tips. When asparagus has been harvested past its prime you will be able to tell because the tips will have begun to open up in preparation of flower production. To keep the asparagus you purchase in good shape for as long as possible, store it in the refrigerator, upright, with the ends in water—like flowers in a vase.

To prepare the asparagus for any cooking method, rinse it well to remove any grit lodged in the tips. If the asparagus seems especially dirty, let it soak in some cool water for a few moments to help loosen any embedded soil. Next, remove the tough ends of the asparagus. To do this, grab the cut end with one hand and with the other hold the spear about a third of the way down from the tip end. Bend the spear in an arc until it snaps. Discard the end. The spear should break at the point where it ceases to be woody and tough. For very thick spears, this method doesn't work quite as well. Deborah Madison recommends trimming such spears with a knife. Simply cut the spear at the point where it begins to change color. Basically, the goal is to waste as little as possible and avoid serving the tough, woody ends.

Good asparagus can be very thin or very thick. I think it is widely assumed that very skinny spears will be more tender, but this is actually not true as a general rule. It is the interior of the spear that becomes soft and tender with cooking—the skin can actually be quite tough. Very skinny spears have a higher percentage of skin, while fatter spears have lots of the tender flesh. All sizes of asparagus have good uses. The most important thing is to purchase bunches that contain spears that are all similar in size so that they will all cook at the same rate.

The skillet method works best with spears that are in the small to medium-thick range. If the spears are larger than a half inch in diameter, they should be peeled first. Peeling these larger spears will allow them to cook more evenly. The spears Jenny gave me were slightly larger than half an inch, so I peeled them when I prepared my lunch.

To peel an asparagus spear, lay it down on the cutting board parallel to the edge and with the tip pointing away from your working hand. Gently hold the spear with your non-working hand and use a peeler (preferably one that shaves thinly) to run down the length of the spear, starting about a third of the way down from the tip. Roll the spear forward and repeat the stroke with the peeler, continuing to roll and peel until the whole circumference of the spear has been peeled.

To prepare skillet asparagus, choose a skillet that is wide enough to accommodate the full length of the asparagus spears. Melt some butter (about a tablespoon to a tablespoon and a half for every pound of asparagus—pre-trim weight) over moderate heat. When the butter is melted and the foam has subsided, add the asparagus spears (making sure the tips are all pointing the same direction) and gently scoot the pan back and forth on the burner to allow the butter to fully coat the asparagus.

Season with salt, cover and continue to cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the asparagus is as tender as you prefer and still a beautiful green color—anywhere from 7 to 15 minutes. It's OK if it is beginning to turn golden brown in spots. While the asparagus cooks, uncover the pan occasionally to make sure that the heat isn't too high and that the asparagus isn't scorching or sticking (lower the heat as necessary)—occasionally repositioning the spears (moving some from top to bottom and from the outside in towards the center) so that it will all cook evenly.

I have successfully prepared as much as three pounds of asparagus (pre-trim weight) in this manner. Obviously the more you cook, the larger your pan needs to be, but in general, it is not necessary for the asparagus to fit in the pan in a single layer (a depth of two or three spears is fine).

Skillet asparagus is a perfect way to prepare freshly harvested asparagus. Cooked in this way, it makes a wonderful side dish—served as is or embellished with herbs, chopped toasted nuts, finely grated or shaved Parmesan or a bit of lemon or some vinaigrette. It was also fabulous served as I had it—as the centerpiece of a lunch. (If you aren't a fan of scrambled eggs you could top the asparagus with a poached or a fried egg.)

But I have to say, I think the lovely asparagus I received would have been good no matter how I prepared it—such is the beauty of fresh, seasonal produce that has been grown and harvested with care by someone you know. Since not everyone is fortunate enough to have a farmer for a friend and co-worker, getting to know your local growers is the best reason that I know of to become a regular at your local farmers' market.

Getting ready for lunch...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

First Visit to the Market and an Asparagus & Bulgur Pilaf

Yesterday was the final day of March. But you would never know it from the weather. For most of March we experienced weather that was more like April or May....even June. Yesterday we almost hit 90°. We have been through a warp speed spring...watching in two weeks a progression of bloom that normally occurs over a four to six week period. The lilacs bloomed in March this year. This has been a once in a lifetime Spring.

In a normal year, I usually make my first early Saturday morning trek to the farmers' market around the second weekend of April. As much as I look forward to the market season, I tend to put off that first trip. It's usually still cold...I'm out of the habit...and there just isn't much there. The market is officially open during the winter months, but our normal weather conditions make it almost impossible for the local growers to have much to offer before mid April. The thing that always lures me back is the asparagus. I don't want to miss its arrival. My goal every year is to make it to the market the same week the local asparagus does...maybe a week before....

I don't know if yesterday morning's visit coincided with the first asparagus or not. A friend who farms in the Lawrence area told me that they had begun harvesting their asparagus this past week...so it is likely that Saturday was the day. In any case, I brought home a couple of nice bunches of local asparagus. What a treat...local asparagus in March.

Our evening meal on that first market Saturday in Spring always seems special to me. I never do anything complicated—I just want to savor the moment and quietly celebrate the beginning of the growing year by cooking with some of those first few ingredients. Because that first visit to the market falls more often than not on the weekend before the asparagus arrives, I usually make a big green salad (many of the lettuces and the spinach are the first things to arrive). And I could have had a salad last night—I brought home a big bag of beautiful lettuces. But I really just wanted to enjoy the asparagus.

So for dinner last night we had a simple bulgur pilaf that was loaded with asparagus. I added a few peas from the freezer, spring onions from my morning trip to the market and a big handful of fresh herbs—parsley, mint (already rampant in my garden) and thyme. I finished the pilaf with some pistachios and lemon and served it with a hard cooked egg (eggs and asparagus are wonderful together). For tips on how to create a main course pilaf of seasonal vegetables, check out my "basics" post from a couple of years ago.

I was—as always—so glad to be back at the market. Walking the familiar aisles, seeing faces I haven't seen since October or November, checking out what's new... I was filled with anticipation for the market season ahead. When I returned home, I spread out my purchases on the counter. I was immediately struck by the green-ness of it all. And then when I sat down to my evening meal, I noticed it again in the many and varied shades of green in the finished pilaf. We have been experiencing spring out of doors now for a full three weeks. Yesterday, it made its way into my kitchen....and onto my plate.

Bulgur Pilaf with Asparagus & Herbs

2 T. olive oil
4 or 5 spring onions—including a few inches of the green—trimmed and thinly sliced (you will have about 1 c. onion)
1 T. picked fresh thyme, roughly chopped
kosher salt
1/4 t. fennel seed, crushed in a mortar and pestle
1 c. (6 oz.) medium bulgur, rinsed and drained
1 1/4 c. water

1/2 lb. (trimmed weight) asparagus spears, trimmed and cut in 1-inch lengths on a short diagonal
1 c. peas (thawed, if using frozen)
1/4 c. chopped flat leaf parsley
3 to 4 T. mint chiffonade
1 to 2 T. olive oil
zest of 1/2 a lemon
lemon juice to taste (about 1 to 2 t. or so)
1/2 c. toasted pistachios, coarsely chopped

Warm 2 T. olive oil in a medium saucepan with a tight fitting lid over moderate heat. Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the thyme and fennel and cook until fragrant—about a minute. Increase the heat to medium high and add the drained bulgur along with a generous pinch of salt. Continue to cook for a minute. Add the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered until the bulgur is tender—12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand (covered) for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt the water. Add the asparagus and cook until just tender. Scoop out the asparagus and rinse under cold running water to stop the cooking process. Spread out on a couple layers of paper towels. Return the water to a boil and add the peas. Cook until just tender. Drain and rinse under cold running water. Add to the asparagus.

Transfer the bulgur to a large bowl and toss in the peas and asparagus along with the remaining ingredients—adding lemon juice and salt to taste. If the pilaf seems dry, add a bit more olive oil. Serves 4 as an entrée along with a hard cooked or egg or a wedge of cheese.

• The pilaf may be served warm or at room temperature.
• The pilaf would be a great dish to take on a picnic or to a pot luck.