Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Compendium of Ingredients

Have you ever had some ingredient on hand that needs to be used up but you’re devoid of ideas for using it?  With all the cookbooks that I have, there are not many that put all the recipes for one ingredient together.  This is my attempt to do just that—hope it helps some of my readers.  I am such a seasonal cook that I may limit the ingredients to those in season but who knows?  If I come across some interesting ideas, I’ll include them here.


Now that you can buy all kinds of produce year round in the supermarket, you can make any recipe you come across, anytime.  This is really great for experimenters or those who are interested in learning how to increase their repertoire of cooking expertise.  Still, there is something about the change of seasons and beginning with a new bunch of foods not used or seen in awhile that strongly appeals to me and, I’m guessing, most people.  There is no dearth of articles on food that begin with “Spring is here, let’s make asparagus”, or “Strawberry season inspires dessert”.  In autumn, we re-fire our ovens and respond to the call of winter squashes, baked with maple syrup and apples in every imaginable guise.  I like it that way. 

Early spring brings the first asparagus as surely as the first robin.  Asparagus, a member of the lily family, is a strange food with an ancient history. It appeared on the menus of the ancient Romans as a delicacy and seems to grow almost anywhere.  It does well in sandy, poor soil which probably added to its cosmopolitan reputation.  It was revered by the South American Indian tribes as a phallic symbol supposedly increasing virility.  It’s been cultivated for over two thousand years.  On the other hand, wild asparagus is not very different from cultivated.  My early memories include my mother and me hunting for asparagus in the spring, out where Southdale is now.  I know I am dating myself, but that really was undeveloped and we who lived in St. Louis Park thought it was “way out of town”.  Later, my mother planted it in her garden and was very proud of her wonderful asparagus, often remarking how one must let the asparagus go to seed every year if you wanted a good crop the next year.

Choose spears that are firm and uniform in size.  Although many people believe that thin is better than thick, it isn’t true, just be sure they are uniform.  The tips should be closed and the stalks crisp without wrinkles.  Forget about breaking them at the natural break and cut the ends off all the same and all at once.  I don’t bother standing them up to cook, as many cookbooks suggest. Just lay them in a wide, shallow skillet and cover with salted water.  Boil briskly, uncovered, for 12 minutes (more or less, depending on the size of the stalks).  Test by piercing with the sharp point of a paring knife; knife should enter easily, but asparagus should not be mushy.  Serve with a classic Hollandaise or just butter and lemon.   Since asparagus does not keep well, it is a good idea to cook it as soon as possible.  If you can’t use it immediately, cooked asparagus is delicious served cold with mayonnaise or in a salad. 
A current way to prepare all vegetables is to roast them and asparagus takes to roasting very well. The intense, dry heat of the oven concentrates and deepens the flavor.  To roast, prepare one and one-half pounds of asparagus as above (peeling outer stalks if tough).  On a rimmed baking sheet, toss asparagus with two teaspoons of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.  I use coarse salt and freshly ground pepper.  Roast about 10 minutes.

A lovely way to embellish the roasted asparagus is with a spring-green sauce.  Serve this at a lovely early spring dinner as the first course.

Sauce Verde

2 cups loosely packed fresh Italian parsley leaves      One-fourth teaspoon pepper
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves                     Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice                                  Two-thirds cup olive oil
1 tablespoon anchovy paste                                       
2 tablespoons drained capers                                      2 pounds asparagus, trimmed
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard                                           and roasted with 2 tablespoons
1 garlic clove                                                               olive oil

Combine first 9 ingredients in processor.  Blend until smooth.  With machine running, gradually add two-thirds cup olive oil through feed tube.  Sauce can be prepared 2 days ahead.  Cover and refrigerate.  Bring to room temperature before serving.  Divide asparagus among 8 plates.  Spoon sauce over and serve.

Breaded Asparagus Sticks

2 eggs
½ tsp. Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
¾ cup dried bread crumbs (preferably panko)
20-30 medium spears asparagus, trimmed

Preheat oven to 400.  Lightly grease baking sheet with olive oil.  Beat eggs with mustard in shallow bowl. Season with salt and pepper.  In another shallow bowl, combine panko and Parmesan; mix well.  Dip each spear first in eggs to coat, then in crumbs.  Place on baking sheet.  Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden on bottom.  Turn over and bake for another 12-15 minutes until golden brown.  Serve hot or room temperature with lemon wedges. 

Asparagus Fettuccine

1 pound asparagus
1 pound fettuccine
1 large red pepper, roasted and cut into strips
1 pound ricotta cheese, room temperature
¼ cup freshly grated Pecorino-Romano or Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1/3 cup chopped scallions
Salt and pepper

Bring large pot of water to boil.  Cut woody end of asparagus and reserve.  Cut the spears into 1 ½ inch lengths.  Add asparagus to boiling water and cook for 2 minutes.  Add tips and cook until tender, about 2 minutes more.  Remove asparagus and keep warm.  Cook fettuccine in the water until al dente.  Remove ½ cup cooking water and set aside.  Briefly drain the fettuccine and return it to the pot, along with the asparagus.  Add roasted pepper, ricotta, cheese and scallions.  Toss well and add reserved cooking water to make a creamy sauce.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve hot and pass extra cheese at table.

Asparagus Bisque

1 stick butter
¾ cup flour
2 quarts whole milk
1 cup chicken stock
1 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. salt (or more, depending on the saltiness of the stock)
1 bay leaf
3 cups cleaned and cooked asparagus, tips and center only, (cut into ½-inch pieces)
Instant potatoes (use to thicken bisque if needed)

Roux:  In stockpot, melt butter; add flour, stirring constantly so mixture doesn’t burn.  Add 1 quart milk slowly to roux mixture, stirring constantly.  When combined and thickened, add remaining milk and chicken stock.  Add bay leaf, white pepper and salt.  Add asparagus.  Cook soup slowly for 1 hour. 

To serve, top bisque with large sourdough croutons and a dollop of sour cream.  Sprinkle with dill weed.  Makes 1 gallon. 

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