May 29, 2008

Asparagus on Asparagus

It would seem logical at first to follow the line of thought that if something is good, more of that thing would be better. This is certainly the case if that something is chocolate. Because chocolate is good, but more chocolate is better. Finding $20 is good, but finding $50 is better. A free parking space is good, but no traffic at all is better. One cherry is good, but a handful of cherries are better. Ice Cream is good, but more ice cream? Better! See, this works on so many levels. There was a time, however, that if you had of told me asparagus is good but more asparagus is better, I would have told you that you were wrong on both accounts. In fact, I would have gone so far as to say that asparagus is bad and more asparagus is horrendous. At least that’s what my young and foolish self would have told you. When I was a youngster asparagus was right up there with mushrooms and olives on the list of things I did not eat. As far as I could tell, the only benefit to asparagus was that it was long and bright green and therefore easy to pick off my plate, (unlike mushrooms and olives which could be hidden in many dishes, only to shock my palate when I took an unsuspecting bite). Eventually though, I came around and realized that asparagus and mushrooms and olives are all wonderful and I now look for ways to incorporate them into my cooking. And what better way to incorporate asparagus than by pairing it with itself. If asparagus is good, asparagus dipped in asparagus is better.

In my cookbook collection there lives a book with the best title I could imagine for a cookbook: Happy in the Kitchen. It’s by Michel Richard and it does an excellent job of proving that if something is good, more of that thing would be better with recipes like Potato Bites in Potato Baskets, Braised Carrots with Carrot-Top Sauce, Romaine on Romaine and yes, even Asparagus on Asparagus. The only change I made to this recipe was to roast some of the spears, cause that’s the way I like them and they look pretty on the plate next to the peeled and steamed spears. If you have not seen this book before, I urge you to check it out, it’s worth its weight in gold for the eye candy alone.

Asparagus on Asparagus, (from Happy in the Kitchen by Michel Richard)

24 large asparagus (about 2 pounds)

2 T extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp Dijon mustard

1 T fresh lemon juice, or to taste

Granulated sugar

Fine sea salt

Set aside 4 asparagus spears for the vinaigrette. Cut off the tough bottom ends of the asparagus spears and set those aside for the vinaigrette as well. With a vegetable peeler, peel the remaining asparagus spears from about an inch below the tip to the bottom of the spear.

Set a steamer basket in a pot over simmering water. Place the peeled asparagus in the basket, cover, and steam for about 5 to 6 minutes, or until the spears are just tender with pierced with the tip of a paring knife. Be careful not to overcook the asparagus.

Meanwhile, fill a bowl with ice water. When the asparagus is cooked, lift the spears with a pair of tongs and submerge them in the ice bath to cool, then remove and roll them in a clean kitchen towel to dry.

For the vinaigrette, cut the reserved 4 asparagus spears into 1-inch pieces. Place in a small saucepan with the trimmed asparagus bottoms and add ¼ cup water and the olive oil. Bring to a simmer, cover, and simmer gently for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the asparagus is completely softened. The water should have evaporated, and the asparagus should be stewing in the oil.

Pour the asparagus into a blender and puree until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl and whisk in the mustard, lemon juice, and a pinch each of sugar and salt.

Serve the asparagus on a platter, with the vinaigrette in a small dish or ramekin on the side for dipping.

Hint: For this presentation, the larger the spears, the better. This is an ‘interactive’ dish- the spears should be picked up and dipped in the vinaigrette.

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May 11, 2008

Happy Mother’s Day!

I’ve previously told you about how my Mom’s pretty awesome because she can bake bread from scratch, milk a goat and turn the output into cheese and ice cream and make a seriously tasty omelet too. But what you don’t know about Mom is that she’s also the nicest, most compassionate, thoughtful and caring person you will ever meet. This means that she puts others before herself and goes out of her way to help those in need. If everyone were to be as lucky as I am and have a Mom like mine, the world would certainly be a different and much happier place.

When I was little my Mom would tuck me in and sing me to sleep at night, hug me every morning and remind me daily that I’m loved. She gave me books like Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden to read and encourage my imagination to grow and develop. From as early as I can remember I’ve always loved sports and that’s probably because Mom would take me skating and skiing in the winter and go biking and swimming with me in the summer, (and she still does). Mom doesn’t speak ill of other people and as such has taught me the value of respect and acceptance of others. At times in my life when I have had to make the decision of whether or not to do something questionable, my decisions have always hinged on the fact that I wouldn’t want to do something that would disappoint my Mom or make her less proud of me. She’s my number one cheerleader in all that I do and is sure of me when I’m not sure of myself.

I assure you, if you’ve ever had the privilege of crossing paths with my Mom, you’re a better person for it. Unfortunately, I think people that are as nice as she is, (if other such people even exist) are often underappreciated. In her role as an elementary school principle, Mom goes to work early and comes home late everyday, she genuinely cares about the wellbeing of her students and staff and yet still has to put up with far more nonsense and politics than anyone should have to. Despite all of that, Mom has a positive outlook on life and believes in the good of people. But if I had things my way, Mom would have retired long ago so that she could spend her days gardening, going for hikes and bike rides, reading and writing a book.

If I had things my way I would also be home for Mother’s Day so that I could spend the day with my Mom. I would start by making her some fabulous cornmeal waffles for brunch, (a Dorie Greenspan recipe from this book) and top them with maple blueberry sauce and fresh orange segments. Then we would relax and read the paper on the deck in the sunshine and talk about where in the Travel section we wanted to go most. When we finished reading the paper we would drive to the beach to go for a walk along the water and get an ice cream cone with two scoops each. After we got home Dad and I would start making dinner and Mom would work in the garden until it was time to eat. Depending on our mood following dinner we would play cards or watch a movie. It would be a wonderful day with my Mom. Unfortunately, she will have to take a raincheck on that one because I can’t make it home this weekend, but I still love her very very much and hope she has an amazing day because she really deserves it.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom!

May 04, 2008

Morels and Nostalgia

There are some places, people and things with which we are inextricably linked. Childhood homes seem to have a hold on people. Even when you’ve lived away for longer than you lived there, something still binds you to the place where you grew up. Memories of that place are often tinged with gold. But when you go back, it’s not the same. There are new houses, new signs, new people. The landscape has changed, the trees have grown up and so have you. When I visit the place where I grew up, I can’t help but feel nostalgic. It’s as though Madonna’s This Used To Be My Playground is always playing in the background. But even though the place has changed, the magic still remains. If I close my eyes I can still see the sparkling water as the last rays of sunlight sink below the horizon, the sky ablaze in reds and purples. I can still feel the sand between my toes or a warm summer breeze on my skin. I can still taste strawberries from the garden or penny candy from the Beach Memory general store. I can still hear kids playing baseball at the end of the road or the gentle baaaahhh of a baby lamb looking for its bottle. And if I take a deep breath I can still smell the earthy scent of a fresh morel.

When I was little I hated mushrooms. I picked them out of spaghetti sauce, omelets and anything else my parents tried to sneak them into. I hated all mushrooms except for morels. Morels were different. Because every spring after the temperature climbed to just the right degree and we would get just enough rain, the morels would begin to pop up and my family would go morel hunting. We went to the same places every year and without fail, the morels would be there. All we needed were our morel eyes and the proper morel stick to find them. As soon as I spotted my first morel I would call out to let everyone else know. Dad would then hand me his smooth silver pocket knife so that I could cut it off at the base. I would then cup the morel in my palms, lift it my nose and breathe it in. As the saying goes, where there’s one, there’s more. After finding the first one, the second one usually wasn’t far off. We would pick until our basket was full and then return home. When I was little we used to find so many morels that we’d feast on some immediately and then lay the rest out on the deck in the sunshine to dry so that we had morels all year long. The best way to eat them was simply to fry them up fresh with butter and they were delicious. Not only was I lucky enough to have morels for dinner, but we’d also usually go foraging for fiddleheads at the same time of year and fry some of those up too.

This year I returned to the place I grew up, in search of morels. I went with my parents and we met up with friends of ours who still live there. These friends are the owners of the baby lambs, (who eventually become sheep) and they have a fabulous wool businesss, The Philosopher’s Wool. They are also the source of my wool when I make silly things like knitted cupcakes Spring at their house means lambing season and the little guys are too cute to resist. I remember years where there were lambs, that for one reason or another needed to be bottle fed and they would stay in the house instead of the barn. I loved going to visit the bottle lambs. And while I was there I would go out to the chicken coop to collect eggs, always happy when there were some to find. I could use a chicken coop these days for the amount of eggs I go through.

But back to the morels. It was still early in the season when I returned to my old haunts to look for them. We were looking for the black morels as they come up first, followed by the more blond coloured ones and not in the same places either. There’s a certain place where we go early in the season and then it changes later on. On this particular journey we only found 8 morels. This is a far cry from the days when I would come home with an overflowing basket. Like I said though, places, people and things change and I guess morels are no exception. Change is inevitable but I’ll still pine away for the days of overflowing baskets, sand dunes and baseball at the end of the road.

The recipe you see here is from Jamie Oliver and is an Asparagus and Potato Tart. The only thing I’ve changed is to add fresh morels and fiddleheads, (which makes it a million times better, but you could still make it without and it’ll be pretty good too). As a bonus, the asparagus was picked fresh from the garden, some of the first spears this year.

Asparagus and Potato Tart (From Jamie Oliver’s Jamie at Home via the Foodnetwork)

1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
Sea salt
1 pound asparagus spears, woody ends removed
8 ounces filo pastry
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup freshly grated Lancashire cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated Cheddar
3 large organic or free-range eggs
1 (8-ounce) container heavy cream
Pinch fresh nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper

Put your potatoes into a pan of salted boiling water and cook for 15 minutes. Meanwhile blanch your asparagus in a separate pan of salted boiling water for 4 minutes, and drain in a colander.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Get an ovenproof dish - I've used many different shapes and sizes. Layer the sheets of filo pastry in the dish, brushing them with melted butter as you go and letting about 1-inch hang over the edge. You want to get the pastry about 5 layers thick. Put a clean, damp kitchen towel over the top and put aside.

When the potatoes are done, mash them with the cheeses. In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs and cream and stir into your cheesy mashed potato. Grate in the nutmeg, season well with pepper and mix together. Spread the mashed potato over the filo pastry, then bring up the sides of the filo and scrunch them together to form a rim. Take your blanched asparagus and line them up across the filling, making sure you cover it all. Brush all over with the remaining melted butter and pop into the preheated oven for around 20 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Allow to rest for 10 minutes. Serve just as you would a quiche for a quick lunch or supper, with a salad.

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