Fresh asparagus: a gift from spring

Produce: Seasonal bounty from the garden can be used to make easy and inspired meals.

April 11, 2001|By Ron Ottobre | Ron Ottobre,KNIGHT RIDDER /TRIBUNE

I was like a kid on Christmas morning when I headed into a meeting with my chefs recently. It was the passing of winter, however, not its climax, that had me so excited. And it was our gardener, not Santa, who held my wish list - an alphabetized cornucopia of spring produce that my chefs and I could now put on our menu.

Asparagus, that edible lily, headed the list. The proud and pointed emblem of spring would at last grace our soups, appetizers, pastas and side dishes.

But wait! The gifts continue: baby carrots, green garlic, heirloom beets, new potatoes, rhubarb, Romanesque broccoli and spring onions. With visions of sweet, earthy beets dancing in our heads, we begin to work together, tossing about ideas for spring menus and recipes. Like the first pitches of baseball season, the task awoke our culinary muscles. The national anthem played, the festivity begins.

For the home chef, meals with spring produce can be easy and inspired. Preparation times are reduced, and simple combinations take advantage of this time of freshness. Spring herbs such as cilantro, chervil, rosemary and thyme add a level of complexity and interest to dishes.

A saute pan filled with lightly blanched vegetables and a kiss of extra-virgin olive oil or sweet butter is all it takes to complete a dish of freshly caught salmon, roast chicken or spring lamb.

Salads become entrees. Tender greens and radicchio mingle with roasted baby beets or tiny shaved artichokes. Add a little feta cheese, some croutons, a good sherry vinegar and a little olive oil and see what spring tastes like. Or try a stir-fry of sliced green garlic, broccoli florets and snow peas. Add some al-dente pasta, top with grated Parmesan, and dinner is served.

Asparagus is the star of the season. Roasted or grilled, sauteed or steamed, this quickly prepared stalk should be front and center on any plate. Asparagus officinalis, the parent species of most cultivated varieties, has been used as food and medicine for more than 2,000 years. The Greeks harvested wild asparagus, and the ancient Romans later invented the first techniques for domestication.

While the plants are not cut for the first two to three years of growth, they may last a half-century. California produces 70 percent of our country's asparagus, most of it green. But it comes in other colors. Sweet purple is a variety whose lovely shade quickly fades if overcooked. The white variety, preferred by Europeans, is grown under mounds of earth to prevent it from turning color.

Young, thin shoots are my first choice for flavor and rapid cooking, but the thicker stalks are great when skewered in rows and tossed straight on the grill. Asparagus is easily readied by snapping off the tough, whitish ends of the stem, which I save for flavoring stocks.

The classic French preparation demands peeling the stem, but that is unnecessary with the more tender shoots. Blanching is best done in rapidly boiling salted water. One minute is usually sufficient for pencil-sized asparagus. If using in salads or reheating in a little foamy butter, flash-cool the stalks in ice water to stop the cooking and preserve the verdant color.

It's the same enticing shade of the grapevine our gardener was tending as my chefs and I concluded our meeting and glanced out the restaurant's dining-room window. The vine's emerald green shoots reminded me of the stately stalks of asparagus on the cutting board back in the kitchen. Spring is here, the season of freshness has returned.

Ron Ottobre is the executive chef of Mudd's restaurant in San Ramon, Calif.

Asparagus Soup With Truffle-Oil Cream

You can find truffle oil in specialty markets such as Whole Foods.

Serves 6

2 pounds asparagus, woody ends snapped off

1 cup chopped white or yellow onion

4 to 6 tablespoons butter

6 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water

2 cups whipping cream (reserve 1/2 cup for truffle cream)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

salt

freshly ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon truffle oil

You should use jumbo asparagus to make this soup. Rough-chop the asparagus spears and blanch in heavily salted water for 5 minutes. Flash-cool in ice water and reserve.

In a soup pot, gently saute the onion in butter until translucent but not browned, about 7 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the blanched asparagus and immediately remove from heat. Puree well in small batches in a blender (you may scald yourself if too much is done at one time) until very smooth.

Transfer back to the soup pot and add the 1 1/2 cups of cream, and lemon juice. Simmer about 10 minutes to reduce it to the proper thickness. Add salt and pepper to taste. Whip the remaining cream until it starts to thicken; stir in the truffle oil (can be made an hour ahead). Ladle soup into heated bowls and top with a spoonful of the truffle cream.

Per serving: 453 calories; 10 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrate; 42 grams fat; 139 milligrams cholesterol; 511 milligrams sodium; 3.5 grams fiber. Calories from fat: 82 percent

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