May 30, 2013

In Season

In the last few years there has been a growing movement toward eating locally-grown, in-season produce. The reasons for this are evident; the fruits and vegetables are picked when ripe and not before, it saves transportation costs and supports local economies.
To that end, folks throughout the northeast United States wait all year to enjoy May asparagus. These tender, flavorful veggies are at their peak all this month. Available in both the green and white varieties, this tasty stalk can be steamed, sautéed, broiled or grilled with minimal add-ins.
The word “asparagus” is derived from Greek and means “sprout” or “shoot.”  The asparagus plant is a member of the lily family and is related to onions and garlic but does not share any of their strong, lingering flavors. The ancient Greeks and Romans valued asparagus for medicinal uses--treating bee stings, heart ailments, and toothaches.
When the weather is just right, asparagus can grow up to 10 inches in 24 hours; there are farmers that say you can lie on the ground and actually watch the asparagus grow.  In early spring asparagus plants produce sprouts every 4-5 days.  As the weather gets warmer in early summer, the growth becomes so abundant that stalks are harvested every day.  Why, then, is asparagus so costly?  The high cost of asparagus is brought about by the fact that asparagus plants do not produce for the first three years.  This means that a farmer sees no return on his investment for quite some time.  Higher prices offset this delay.  In addition, asparagus is hand-harvested to choose only the ripest shoots; this may also add to the cost—but asparagus lovers think it’s worth the price.   
Asparagus is a nutrient-dense food which in high in Folic Acid and is a good source of potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C, and thiamin. Asparagus contains no fat, no cholesterol and is low in sodium.
White asparagus comes from the same plant as green; it’s not a different species.   It was discovered that when the spears emerge from the ground, the sunlight turns the stalks green. To keep the asparagus white, soil is piled on top of the plants so that the stalks can grow underground. When the tip of the stalk appears at the surface, farmers probe under the ground with a special knife to cut the stalk. This stalk is all white, and is considered a delicacy.
Whether you like thick stalks or thin is a matter of personal preference.  There is no general rule that indicates whether one will be tastier than the other. The tough bottom portion of the stalk contains moisture to keep the asparagus fresh.

The simplest way to prepare asparagus is in the oven or on the grill. Check with your local authority on how to inspect asparagus for infestation.

2 pounds fresh asparagus
Good olive oil
Kosher salt, plus extra for sprinkling
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Break off the tough ends of the asparagus and peel them.
 Place the asparagus on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, then toss to coat the asparagus completely. Spread the asparagus in a single layer and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Roast the asparagus for 15-20 minutes, depending on how thick the stalks are, until tender but still crisp.

Enjoy this pretty and delicious dish for Sunday brunch. 

1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 cup grated cheddar cheese, divided
2 scallions, checked and chopped
10 ounces fresh asparagus or frozen, thawed
6 eggs
½  cup milk
½  cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 small onion, chopped
½ a red bell pepper, diced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

prepare the frittata: Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease a glass pie plate or 9” round pan with butter.  Mix 1/2 cup cheese with the chopped scallions and set aside.
 In a medium saucepan, boil asparagus in salted water for 2-3 minutes, until bright green. Drain well, cool and pat dry. 
 In a large bowl, beat eggs until frothy using a whisk.  Add milk and continue mixing.  Stir in flour and baking powder. Add asparagus, diced peppers and onions and mix until well combined.  Season to taste with pepper.
 Pour into prepared pan and bake for 35 minutes.   Remove from oven and allow it to cool.  (Up to this point, the frittata can be prepared in advance.)
 Preheat broiler or turn up oven temperature to 500 degrees F.  Sprinkle with cheese and scallion mixture.  Place pan in broiler or oven for a few minutes until cheese melts.  Serve immediately.  Serves 6

A tasty appetizer or side dish.

1 cup cold water
2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup flour

1/3 cup cornstarch
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound green or white asparagus, checked and trimmed
Canola oil for deep frying

For the dipping sauce:
1/2 cup Dijon-style mustard
2 tablespoons fresh dill, checked and chopped
2 tablespoons honey

In a large bowl whisk together the water, cornmeal, flour, cornstarch, egg, baking powder, and salt until well combined. Batter will be lumpy.
In a large skillet heat about 1 inch of oil to 350 degrees on a deep-fry thermometer. Place asparagus into batter, stir to coat.  Carefully slide 3 0r 4 coated spears into hot oil. Fry for 3 to 4 minutes, depending on thickness of spears, until golden. Remove with tongs. Place on paper towels to drain. Place ready spears on a baking pan in a warm oven while frying remaining spears.
Combine mustard, dill weed, and honey in a small bowl. Serve with asparagus fritters.

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