April 22, 2010
AN ODE TO ASPARAGUS, revisited
from an essay I wrote for this website in 2002...
It's the season of spring green -- the new vegetables that come in like hope with the longer, warmer days: Irish peas, artichokes, fennel, fava beans if you're crazy enough to peel each one, fresh limas, and above all -- asparagus!
No one can argue with the aesthetics of asparagus. Slender bright green stalks or fat ones, or overprotected creamy white, they all look fabulous. However, unlike artichokes which need serious pruning, or peas which must be shelled (let's not even talk about the favas), the elegant asparagus is adaptable and easy to prepare.
In fact, I sometimes like it best with no preparation at all. I cut raw asparagus into thin, diagonal slices and toss it into my salads. It’s delicious with endive and radicchio, finished with large shavings of Parmesan and a simple vinaigrette. Also perfect with a salad of butter lettuces and fresh herbs – dill sprigs, mint leaves, parsley or chervil – and a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice.
Steamed asparagus is, of course, familiar to all. Thick stalks, trimmed and steamed until just tender but firm, are superb dressed with a drizzle of fruity olive oil, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and a sprinkle of sea salt. Nothing else is needed. With asparagus, as with many spring vegetables, the key is not to overcomplicate things. Spring flavors are not aggressive, and shouldn't be masked with elaborate layers of other ingredients.
Roasted asparagus is an enduring favorite of mine. The ingredients are pretty much the same - asparagus, olive oil and salt, with an optional drop of lemon juice at the end. For roasting I prefer thinner asparagus. I wash and trim a pound or two of these slender stalks, drizzle a couple tablespoons of excellent olive oil over them, roll them around with my hands until the stalks are evenly coated. I spread the stalks on a baking sheet, sprinkle them lightly with sea salt, and roast them in a hot oven - about 400˚ - for 20 or 30 minutes. Very, very slender stalks could be ready in a shorter time, and I check them after 10 or 15 minutes when I move them around.
I like my roasted asparagus crispy. Yes, crispy! Golden brown at the tips. Yum -- tastes like potato chips only better, a great finger food.
Over the years, I've made many dishes with asparagus: soups, frittatas, stir-fries, and even a fancy roulade. (Look for a list of recipe references at the bottom.) Asparagus combines well with eggs, cream, delicate cheeses, pasta and rice, foods that are mild enough not to drown out the essential asparagus of it all. Other good partners are leeks, new potatoes, and mushrooms - asparagus with morels is a marriage made in culinary heaven
Lemon and dill, however, are the two flavors that leap to mind first when thinking of asparagus. I once saw an easy recipe in Gourmet Magazine (R.I.P.) for a pasta dish with asparagus and lemon, and adapted it to an asparagus risotto. I made a simple puree from the stalks and some lemon zest and stirred it into the risotto early in the cooking process. The lightly cooked asparagus tips were added near the end, along with a squirt of lemon juice. I finished it with some Parmesan, but it would also be divine with a spoonful of mascarpone.
It was a beautiful, pale green risotto, and I put a few reserved asparagus tips on top of each serving, then sprinkle a little chopped fresh dill over it. With a glass of fruity white wine and some Gaviota strawberries for dessert, I had what I considered a perfect spring supper.
Look for these excellent asparagus recipes:
from The New Vegetarian Epicure
Roasted Asparagus, page 374
Roasted Beet, Asparagus, and Garlic Salad, page 173
Spa Salad with Bitter Greens, Asparagus and Mint, page 5
from The Website Archive
Frittata of Yellow Potatos and Asparagus, April, 2001
from Love Soup
Asparagus Bisque With Fresh Dill, page 245
Cold Asparagus Soup, page 371
Sorrel Soup with Mint and Spring Vegetables, page 247
Springtime Mushroom and Barley Soup, page 258
Summer Chopped Salad with Grilled Halloumi, page 470
And even more in the post below, TIME FOR FARRO....
And here, also from LOVE SOUP, is the one that is bubbling on my stove now.
Snap Pea, Asparagus, and Fennel Soup with spring herbs
When I first made this soup, I put the whole spring farmers’ market in the pot. I couldn’t decide between asparagus and dill, or snap peas and mint, so I mixed them all together. The taste is exuberant, both sweet and tart, with bright herbal notes. Spinach, snap peas and asparagus give the soup its intense green color – the one that was labeled “spring green” in your Crayola box.
Be sure to drizzle a little fruity olive oil on top of each serving – the taste of the fresh juice of the olive brings out these beautiful flavors like a perfect salad dressing.
10 oz. sugar snap peas (290 g)
2 medium fennel bulbs, 10 oz. (290 g)
10 oz. asparagus (290 g)
1 bunch green onions (4 oz.; 120 g)
6 oz. (170 g) baby spinach leaves
1½ tsp. sea salt, more to taste
3 Tbs. Arborio rice
2 large leeks (8 oz.; 225 g)
1½ Tbs. fruity olive oil, more for garnish
½ cup (30 g) fresh dill weed, loosely packed
½ cup (15 g) fresh mint leaves, loosely packed
3 cups (750 ml) light vegetable broth or pea pod broth (p.55)
2-3 Tbs. fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste
garnish: fruity green olive oil
Wash all the vegetables thoroughly. String and coarsely chop the snap peas. Chop the fennel bulbs; you should have about two cups. Slice the asparagus and green onions. Combine these vegetables, along with the spinach leaves, in an ample soup pot with 4 cups (1 liter) water, a teaspoon of sea salt, and the Arborio rice. Simmer the vegetables, covered, for about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, chop the white and light green parts of the leeks to yield about 2 cups. Sauté them over medium heat in 2 tablespoons olive oil with a big pinch of salt. Stir the leeks frequently until they are soft and beginning to turn golden, about 20 minutes. Add the cooked leeks to the soup, along with the dill, mint, and broth. (Do not use a strong-flavored vegetable broth for this soup; nothing with tomato in it.)
Allow the soup to simmer for another few minutes, then remove it from the heat and let it cool slightly. Puree the soup in the blender, in batches, or with an immersion blender, until it is smooth. Return it to the pot, add the lemon juice, some freshly ground black pepper, and more sea salt to taste. Remember to stir in the salt a pinch at a time, then wait a moment before tasting.
Bring the soup back to a simmer just before serving, and drizzle a little fruity olive oil on top of each serving.
Serves 6 to 8.
MARCH 31, 2010
LOVE SOUP has been nominated for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award!
Let’s all have champagne with our bowl of soup tonight to celebrate.
Deemed “the Oscars of the food world” by Time Magazine, The James Beard Foundation Awards are the country’s most coveted honor for chefs, restaurants, food professionals, broadcast media, journalists, and authors writing about food. LOVE SOUP is nominated in the category “Healthy Focus” – well, hey – we knew that, right? Great soup: the food that is delicious, practical, comforting, fun to make, fun to share -- and OK, I admit it -- healthy without even trying.
The 2010 JBF Media and Book Awards will take place on Sunday, May 2nd, at Espace, on Manhattan’s West Side. Send those good vibes.
For more information about the James Beard Foundation:
TIME FOR FARRO…
I fell in love with farro at first taste, and it’s starting to look like a long-term relationship.
Farro is an ancient wheat. According to Harold McGee, the authority on the science of food, it is the second oldest known cultivated grain of that family, and is credited with keeping the Roman legions marching. It continues to be very popular in Italy, and in the last few years it has become quite trendy in Italian restaurants and upscale markets here as well, a trend I happily approve. For a time I was deterred from putting farro into every soup, salad and stew I cooked by the fact that it was not available in my little town, but now my friend Mary is thoughtfully keeping it in stock at Treasure Beach, her beautiful café and shop on the main street of Ojai, so here goes – farro every day!
Whole or semi-peeled farro can be cooked in a style similar to risotto, sautéed and then stewed in a savory broth with various flavor elements stirred in as it cooks. The resulting farrotto is a dish with its own distinct personality. It is less creamy than risotto, more chewy, and rich with its distinctive, slightly nutty flavor. Arborio rice sheds a starchy outer layer as it is stirred into a risotto, which thickens the liquid around the grains into a sauce – but the liquid around farro stays brothy and the grains remain distinct even as they soften.
That lovely persistence of the whole grain, the way it hangs on to its shape and texture, makes farro an excellent choice for hearty salads as well. Its toasty-nutty taste holds up with bright, assertive flavors like ripe tomatoes, pungent olives, garlic, and caramelized onions, but is subtle enough to combine with delicate vegetables and herbs, like asparagus, dill, and sweet new carrots.
In fact, I find the flavor of farro interesting and complex enough to enjoy by itself, either unadorned or with the merest whiff of a seasoning. I’ve eaten it like oatmeal, with a scattering of walnuts and raisins. I’ve had it in a stew, with an array of winter vegetables. I’ve enjoyed it with sautéed porcini, with roasted kabocha squash, with olive oil, garlic and black kale…
And I’m not done by a mile. What a great grain!
Basic farro can be cooked like most grains, simply steamed in water with a bit of salt. I also like very much an easy pilaf method in which the farro is subtly underlined with the flavors of onion and bay leaf, and a little kiss of chile. The simmered farro is drained as soon as it reaches the ideal balance of tenderness and chewiness, spread on a baking sheet to dry out a little, and then served alone or in any tasty combination.
Cooked farro – either version -- can be used at once or kept in the refrigerator for several days, ready for action.
SAVORY COOKED FARRO
1 lb. semi-peeled farro
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 tsp. sea salt, more to taste
2 bay leaves
2-4 dried chile arbol pods
7 cups water
Rinse and drain the farro. Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick pan and add the chopped onion, a generous pinch of salt, and the bay leaves. Break open the chile pods, dump out the seeds, and add the pods to the pan. Stir over medium heat for about 6 or 7 minutes, until the onion is translucent and just beginning to turn golden.
Add the farro to the pan, along with a scant 2 teaspoons salt, and continue stirring over medium heat for another 5 to 6 minutes. Add the water, turn up the heat, bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cover the pan. Simmer the farro for 25 to 30 minutes, just until it achieves tenderness without losing its firm chewiness.
Drain the farro through a sieve, discard the bay leaves and chile pods, and either use the farro at once or spread it on a baking sheet to dry out a bit before putting it away. The savory broth that is left can be kept to use in a hot farro dish, or to add to a hearty soup.
Makes about 8 cups of savory cooked farro.
FARRO SALAD WITH SEARED ONIONS, FENNEL AND TOMATOES
Here are the robust Mediterranean flavors we love, beautifully grounded in a bed of toasty, chewy grain. The seared onions and fennel are zingy with vinegar, and sweet from the tomatoes and agave. Olives add a pungent note, pine nuts bring texture, and herbs and arugula give the salad raw freshness. The whole combination is utterly delicious.
This salad could be the main course at lunch, by itself or on a bed of fresh leaves. Add a piece of focaccia and some goat cheese for a heartier meal, and a glass of wine for a meal that feels like a vacation.
Better yet, have a real vacation, eat outside – what a great picnic dish this is.
4 cups savory cooked farro
1 large red onion, about 12 oz.
1 large fennel bulb, about 12 oz. trimmed
4 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
sea salt to taste
3 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 Tbs. agave nectar
1 lb. diced ripe red tomatoes, about 2 cups
12 kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
½ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 small bunch arugula, about 6 oz., sliced
3 Tbs. slivered basil leaves
2 Tbs. slivered mint leaves
fresh ground black pepper to taste
additional olive oil if desired
Cook the farro as described above, drain, and set it aside to cool. The farro can be cooked several days in advance and kept in the refrigerator in a tightly covered container.
Quarter and thinly slice the red onion, and trim, quarter, and thinly slice the fennel bulb. You should have about 3 cups sliced onion and about 2 ½ cups sliced fennel.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large nonstick pan, add the onion and fennel and a big pinch of sea salt, and sauté on high heat, stirring and tossing, until the onion and fennel soften and begin to color, about 6 to 7 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium and continue stirring often as the vegetables become tender and spotted with brown, probably about another 7 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar and the agave and toss quickly as it cooks away. The onions and fennel will be limp, dark, and glistening with their sweet and sour glaze.
Add the diced tomatoes, a teaspoon of sea salt, and the sliced olives, and stir them with the onions and fennel for about a minute, then remove the pan from the heat and stir in the farro. Taste and correct the salt as needed.
Transfer the farro mixture to a large bowl, add the pine nuts, basil, mint, and the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, and toss gently until everything is well combined. Grind in some fresh black pepper, and taste again for salt. Just before serving, add the sliced arugula and toss gently once again.
Serve the salad warm, at room temperature, or cool.
Serves 4-6 as a main course salad.
Crumble some feta cheese over the top. And if you don’t have pine nuts, try pecans or walnuts. Mint is intriguing and lovely, but fresh tarragon would also be delicious.
FARRO SOUP FOR SPRINGTIME
This soup is hearty, yet not heavy. It has the clear, green freshness of spring flavors, layered with that immensely satisfying super-grain, farro.
The first time I had this soup I ate it in its original, vegan version. The next time, I melted a knob of fresh chevre in the bowl – delicious. The third time I dropped a poached egg into the bowl and drizzled the olive oil on top of it. Terrific.
2 large leeks, 8 oz. trimmed, white and light green parts
1 large fennel bulb, 10 oz. trimmed
3-4 green onions
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
3 cups cooked farro
10 oz. sugar snap peas
10 oz. asparagus
6 oz. baby spinach leaves
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
3 Tbs. chopped fresh mint leaves
2 quarts vegetable broth, preferably home-made, more as needed
2 Tbs. lemon juice, more to taste
fresh ground black pepper
additional olive oil to drizzle on each bowl of soup
Trim and thoroughly wash the leeks, quarter them lengthwise, and slice thinly. Trim the fennel bulb, cut it into 1-inch wedges, slice away the core, and slice the wedges crosswise into small pieces. Trim and slice the green onions.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large soup pot and sauté the leeks over medium heat, stirring often, for about ten minutes. Add the cut up fennel and a good pinch of salt, cover the pan, and stir occasionally for another 15 minutes, or until both leeks and fennel are soft and golden. Stir in the sliced green onions and cook, uncovered, another 3-4 minutes.
Meanwhile, pull the stems ends and strings from the snap peas and cut them in ½ -inch pieces. Snap the tough ends off the asparagus stalks and cut the asparagus on a slant into 1-inch pieces. Rinse the spinach leaves.
Add the farro, snap peas, asparagus, spinach, dill, mint, and vegetable broth to the pot, bring the broth to a simmer, and cook for 5 minutes, just until the asparagus and snap peas are barely tender. Add the lemon juice. Taste, and correct the seasoning with more lemon juice and sea salt if needed. Grind in some black pepper.
Ladle the soup into bowls, and drizzle a generous amount of olive oil on top of each serving.
A word about leftovers: The farro will keep absorbing liquid, and leftover soup reheated the next day will be more of a stew. Add some broth, and keep enjoying!
FARRO SALAD FOR EASTER
Bright spring flavors and satisfying texture – here is the dish I made for my friend Carol's Easter brunch, putting in all the delicate new vegetables that called to me at the farmers market: asparagus, golden beets, sweet peas… and my favorite springtime herb combination, dill and mint. A good squeeze of lemon juice added zing and pecans gave just the right crunch.
Bonus points: This salad can be made a day or two in advance – it keeps perfectly in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. It’s a big batch because I designed it as a party dish, but leftovers travel easily for a wonderful springtime lunch at the office.
1 lb. golden beets (trimmed weight)
6 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 cups semi-peeled farro, rinsed
5 cups water
2 ½ tsp. sea salt, more to taste
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1 large fennel bulb (8 oz. trimmed), diced
1½ lbs. green asparagus
1 cup shelled sweet peas
1 cup chopped pecans (3½ oz.)
1 oz. fresh dill weed, coarsely chopped
2 Tbs. slivered fresh mint leaves
3 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbs. agave nectar (or honey)
fresh ground black pepper
Scrub the beets, trim off the stems to one inch, and wrap the damp beets in heavy-duty aluminum foil, crimping the foil together to make a packet. Roast the beets in a 375˚ oven for an hour, or longer if needed – this will depend on the size of the beets. They should be tender enough to be easily pierced through with a fork. Allow the beets to cool, then slip off their skins and cut them into ½-inch dice.
Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium sauté pan, and add the farro. Stir the farro over medium heat for 6-7 minutes, until it is releasing a toasty aroma. Add the 5 cups water and 2 teaspoons salt, and bring the water to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover the pan, and simmer the farro for 25 minutes. It should be tender but chewy. Drain the farro and spread it on a cookie sheet to dry out and cool.
While the farro cooks, heat 2 more tablespoons olive oil in a large nonstick pan and sauté the onion with a pinch of salt, on medium heat, stirring often for about 10 minutes. Add the diced fennel bulb, cover the pan, and stir occasionally for about 20-25 minutes longer, until both onion and fennel are tender and light gold in color. Remove from the heat, stir n the cooked farro, and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Snap off the tough ends of the asparagus and cut them on a slant in pieces ½’ to 1’ in length, depending on the thickness of the stalks. Steam the asparagus for 3-5 minutes, until just barely tender. Steam the peas for about 45 seconds, then refresh with cold water.
Add the diced beets, steamed asparagus pieces, peas, chopped pecans and chopped herbs to the farro mixture and toss until everything is well combined.
Whisk together the remaining olive oil, lemon juice, agave nectar, and ½ teaspoon sea salt and drizzle over the farro mixture, then immediately toss again to distribute the dressing throughout. Grind in as much black pepper as you like.
Serve the salad at cool room temperature.
Serves 10 to 12 – it’s a party dish!
More than 30 years later, she has another new cookbook, "Love Soup," a collection of 100 soups and dishes to eat with them, that she hopes will lure a new generation into the kitchen in much the same way her first book did."
NY Times article:
" What separated her book from other vegetarian cookbooks at the time was that she emphasized flavor. "
“...Thomas (of the Vegetarian Epicure cookbooks) presents 160 new and enticing recipes that may just charm even a die-hard carnivore.” Publisher's Weekly
“Anna Thomas was new to the kitchen and vegetarianism when she wrote “The Vegetarian Epicure,’’ one of the first cookbooks of its kind. The bestseller helped put her through film school, and after knocking out a sequel in 1978, she moved on to a career as a screenwriter (“Frida’’ and the Oscar-nominated “El Norte’’) and movie producer (“My Family’’). In between that and lecturing at the American Film Institute, Thomas has ladled up a new book, “Love Soup,’’ which comes out this month.” Boston.com
“Thomas gives cooks 160 reasons to fall in love with soup all over again! Her introduction to each easy-to-follow recipe makes the reader feel like a close friend is recommending the soup. Sixty of the recipes are vegan, and many of the other dishes can be adapted to a vegan diet. Arranged by seasons, soups range from the traditional (Old-Fashioned Split Pea Soup) to the comforting (Corn and Cheese Chowder) to the exotic (Spicy Indonesian Yam and Peanut Soup). Also included are recipes for breads, hummus, salads, and desserts. In addition, Thomas advises readers on shopping, stocking the pantry, and freezing. Highly Recommended. “