Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Tribute To Spring Veggies: Asparagus

Last week I let you in on some of my plans for the remainder of April, including a great give-away happening next week...stay tuned to see what great prize package I am giving away to one lucky winner right here on my blog! For my Spring Vegetable Tribute, I am going to begin with Asparagus (not Artichokes, even though A-r comes before A-s - because...when I was at the market yesterday looking for some beautiful artichoke globes, they were unfortunately sold out. So check back later in the week for a fabulous recipe using these members of the thistle family.

My early knowledge of asparagus was only of the white variety. As a youngster growing up in Europe, I had my share of those fresh milky-white spears, prepared in a wide variety of interesting and delicious ways.

Unlike green asparagus, the white variety is buried in soil to prevent photosynthesis and therefore remains white. It is thicker than its green cousin, but sweeter, however it requires peeling as the outer skin is tough.

It wasn't until I was in my early twenties that I was introduced to green asparagus in its natural habitat. This was around the time I had met Hubs when he had taken me to the Okanagan to meet his parents for the very first time...(I was a wreck...).

Armed with plastic bags, he had convinced me to take a hike with him into the dry hills above Naramata on Lake Okanagan, where we would find green asparagus growing wild amongst the cacti and knapweed. As an aspiring foodie, this sounded like heaven - the romance of hunting and gathering like our forebears and at the same time getting away for a little one-on-one time with my new beau...

It was a very hot May long-weekend, and I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt and with legs bare, I soon discovered I had taken my life into my hands traipsing through land mines of blooming cacti. As I was ascending the hill, my running shoe knocked a cluster of those piercing cling-ons and one firmly attached itself to my calf. I can't even tell you the pain that pulsed through my leg as I screamed for Hubs to come to the rescue. He had discovered a patch of healthy young spears just up the hill from me and was busy cutting the stalks into his plastic bag...

The spines on an Okanagan cactus protrude about an inch and I can tell you that full inch had bored straight into my calf...I had an immediate flash-back of a similar sea urchin spine attached to my big toe while snorkelling in the waters of former Yugoslavia. Aaah!!! As I held back tears of agony, (girls, you don't want to cry too early in a relationship - save the big tears for something better than a cactus sting) - Hubs came to the rescue and the search for the infamous asparagus officinalis continued. Despite my injury I was intrigued by the process of foraging for real live asparagus in the wild right behind Hubs' family home. By the end of our adventure we had collected two produce bags full of wild asparagus, which we cooked up for dinner that night. No pain, no gain, they say!

Asparagus is one of those really versatile vegetables - the flavour is as unique as the texture and recipes for asparagus are in the millions. In our house, we eat a lot of asparagus - mainly the green variety, as the white tends to be available only in the spring and the price point is quite a bit higher than the green. Asparagus has been traced back about 20,000 years to ancient Egypt and has been used in medicinal, nutritional and aphrodisiac practices. It is high in folate (important in the prevention of heart disease, birth defects, and Alzheimer's) and potassium; it's high in antioxidants and vitamin C, which helps the body produce and maintain collagen; high in fiber and a natural diuretic. Asparagus water is a good astringent for the use in treating and preventing acne and blemishes.

Some of my favourite methods for preparing asparagus are grilling and broiling. If you are broiling, then place the asparagus in a single layer, or in bundles onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Tie off each bundle with a scallion that has been lightly blanched. Drizzle with olive oil and tarragon and a sprinkling of coarse sea salt (or Kosher salt). Place in the middle rack under the broiler for about 20 minutes or until al dente.

A nice way to grill asparagus, is wrapped in Prosciutto ham, then grilled over a hot BBQ until just charred. Serve sprinkled with shaved Asiago cheese as an appetizer, or side dish.

I steam my asparagus in an upright steamer - essentially a tall narrow pot with a metal basket and lid. Once you trim the woody ends off the asparagus spears (I break the ends off by bending the spear towards the base until it snaps, instead of cutting) they will stand upright and therefore cook more evenly as the base requires more cooking than the tip.

Asparagus loves sauce and one of my favourites is a home made Hollandaise or Bearnaise sauce. I don't make it very often, as Hubs has to watch his cholesterol, but if you are in need of a great one, check out the recipe below. I once found a great sauce recipe for asparagus in Canadian Living magazine, which included Dijon and stoneground mustards, and cream. It was To. Die. For. Because of our special dietary needs, Hubs' high cholesterol and my previous breast cancer, I have to avoid heavy cream altogether. But - you will notice I will on occasion include cream in a recipe, as it is still one of my guilty pleasures and once in a while it is ok.

Easy Hollandaise Sauce

1/4 cup unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
2 tsp lemon juice
Dash nutmeg
1/4 tsp sea salt, or to taste
1/4 cup boiling water

Cream butter until soft and smooth. Beat in egg yolks, one at a time, then lemon juice and seasoning. (Put in a bowl that can be set over hot water into the fridge until ready to use). Just before serving, set over hot water (not boiling), stirring constantly while heating. When hot add the 1/2 cup boiling water very gradually until desired thickness. Makes about 2/3 cup.

For Bearnaise Sauce: omit the nutmeg, substitute 1tsp tarragon vinegar for 1tsp of the lemon juice, add 1Tbsp crumbled, dried tarragon and substitute dry white wine for the boiling water ( heat the wine). Same method as above.

No comments:

Post a Comment