002: Asparagus

Supposedly kids have more sensitive taste buds, and that’s why they don’t like all these foods that are great, like asparagus, and brussels sprouts and mushrooms and stuff. They taste too much of what makes the ingredient unique, and so asparagus to a kid becomes a bitter, slimy piece of crap, especially the way a lot of people cook it. Kids are still kind of stupid for not liking mushrooms, and even though they have an excuse, they’re stupid for not liking asparagus.
I was going to do summer squash for this entry, but with the spotty availability of sunburst squash this past week, and the end of spring approaching, I thought I should switch. Since it’s nearly summer, I made a cherry dessert.

The Menu(serves 4)

Asparagus and Lemongrass Soup with Nova Lox
Asparagus and Golden Beet Salad
Chive Crepe with Roasted Asparagus and Goat Cheese
Cherry Custard Tart

Overall, this is a pretty easy menu. The most complex thing is probably the tart, and it’s much simpler than it might sound. Since it’s best cold, let’s start with that.

Cherry Custard Tart

Tart shell

-1 1/2 cups flour
-1/8 teaspoon salt
-1/2 cup unsalted butter
-1/4 cup sugar
-1 large egg, lightly beaten

Sift together the flour and salt in a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix softened butter and sugar (the recipe calls for a mixer-softened butter, but I just got it really soft in the microwave and it worked fine). Pour in the egg, while mixing. Add the flour mix, and form the dough, which should be like crumbly play-doh. Press the dough into kind of a disk, wrap it in plastic, and put it in the fridge for at least an hour.

Custard

-4 egg yolks
-1/2 cup sugar
-1 T flour
-2 cups milk
-1/2 t vanilla
-1/2 lemon’s worth of zest

Mix the yolks and sugar in a saucepan; this will make a shiny orange-yellow substance that looks delicious. Add the flour and incorporate. In another saucepan, heat the milk, vanilla, and lemon zest until it boils. Take it off the heat, stir it into the egg and sugar mixture, and bring the pot to a simmer (try not to let it boil, but it’s okay if you see bubbles). Keep it at heat for about five minutes, stirring constantly. When it’s thickened, pour it into a bowl for later.

Cherry Filling

-2 pounds of cherries, pitted
-vanilla bean; vanilla extract if bean isn’t available
-1/3 cup sugar
-1 T brandy or other fragrant liquor
-1/4 cup water
-1 T cornstarch

Pit the cherries. If you haven’t got a cherry pitter, you could conceivably pit all the cherries with a paring knife or something, but you’re probably better off using some kind of berry (which would work perfectly anyway). If you’re using vanilla bean, cut the pod open, and scrape the seeds out with the top of a knife. Put the cherries, vanilla, liquor and sugar in a saucepan, and pour in the water. Add more if you think it’s needed. Bring the pot to a boil. Mash up the fruit a little. Cook until the fruit is kind of soft. With cherries, they’ll probably start out a bit firm, which you don’t want in this dessert. The liquid in the pot should be a little thicker, but if you’re not happy with the consistency of it, make a cornstarch slurry in a little bowl. Just some cornstarch, enough water to cover it, then mix it until there’s no lumps. Add it to the pot and it’ll thicken up.

The recipe I used for the tart shell assumes you’ll be making one large tart, so it’ll obviously work for that purpose if you want. However, I made individual tarts in ramekins. Once the dough is ready, grease your tart dish (9 inch) or ramekins. Preheat the oven to 400. Roll out the tart dough. It doesn’t need to be perfect, or even very well-rolled, so don’t worry if it sticks to the rolling pin. It should still have about the consistency of play-doh, so it’s easy enough to just spread around with your fingers. Just keep it kind of thin and tart-like. Once the dough is in place, jab some holes in the bottom of each dish with a fork. When the oven is ready, put them in for 20-25 minutes.

When they emerge from the oven, the shells should be golden brown, smell very nice, and once the bits at the rim of the dish are broken, will be unstuck from the walls of the dish (in case you want to pull them out to serve on a plate). For this recipe, leave them in. Let the shells cool a little, then spoon enough custard into each to fill about half way. Fill the remaining space with the cherries. Put the tarts into the fridge to chill and firm up.

Asparagus Prep

Asparagus is a stem, and as a result gets woody in various places. Green asparagus needs to be separated from the woody bottoms of the stem, and white asparagus needs to be peeled and likewise parted from the bottom of the stem.
For this set of recipes, you need 1 standard bunch each of white and green asparagus. For the green, try to find a bunch that has a good portion of skinny stems. Set aside at least 12 of these skinny ones.

The green asparagus is really simple – just take handfuls of stems, hold them at the bottom and the bottom half of the middle, and bend them until the harder parts snap off. You can also just cut them, if you’re nervous or lazy. Reserve these woody pieces.
White asparagus is harder. It’s produced by growing normal asparagus entirely covered in dirt, so it never produces chlorophyll. This accounts for its color and more delicate flavor. As a side effect, however, this causes the skin to grow tough and bitter, and the stems themselves are less robust and sturdy.
Use a vegetable peeler to skin the white asparagus, making sure to keep them on a flat surface. If you peel them in your hand or somewhere without support, they can snap. Chop off the bottom inch or so. Reserve the bottoms and skins.

Asparagus and Golden Beet Salad

-1/2 bunch white asparagus
-1/2 bunch green asparagus
-3 golden beets
– 3 lemons
-parmesan cheese (block/wedge)
-olive oil
-balsamic vinegar

Preheat the oven to 400. Cut the top stem of the beets off. Leave the root, and peel. I didn’t peel them, because I read somewhere that you aren’t supposed to? But it’s probably fine, and a lot easier. Anyway, peel them or don’t, then wrap them in foil. Put them in the heated oven for an hour. Take them out, unwrap them once they’re cooler, and cut them into half-inch-thick disks, peel with a knife, then quarter the disks. Put the quarters into a bowl, then into the fridge to chill.
Fill a saucepan wide enough to lay the spears flat half way with water. Add a good squeeze of lemon juice, some salt, and a pat of butter or splash of olive oil. Bring it to a simmer. Put the asparagus in, batches separated by color because they cook at different rates. When it’s tender enough that a knife slips in, it should be ready. Test it by cutting a bit off the bottom and taste testing. When both the white and green asparagus are cooked, cut them into 2-inch long sticks and put them in the fridge with the beets. Keep the saucepan and water handy.
When dinner is about ready, pull the vegetables out of the fridge and put them in a larger bowl if there’s not enough room to toss them with dressing.
Juice 2 lemons, and whisk in a few glugs of balsamic and olive oil. Try to keep it half oil, half acids. When whisked, the dressing should be a dark opaque tan-brown. Add salt, pepper, or sugar to taste. Pour the dressing, and toss. With the vegetable peeler, shave long curls off the cheese. When you serve the salad on plates, place some of the curls on top.
I made this salad with salted anchovies, which I don’t think worked that well. I do recommend some source of salt aside from the cheese – prosciutto or ham, olives or capers or something like that.

Asparagus and Lemongrass Soup with Nova Lox(adapted from here)

-1 quart chicken stock
-1/2 bunch white asparagus, chopped
-1/2 bunch green asparagus, sliced into thin disks
-3-4 small potatoes, peeled and diced
-1 stem lemongrass, shucked and chopped
-2 oz smoked salmon
-1 lemon
-salt
-pepper
-asparagus bases and skins
-2 t butter
-1 golden beet

Heat the stock, butter, and pig slops in a large saucepan. Keep it at a low simmer for about an hour – while the skins and bases aren’t good to eat, they still have flavor in them, and as long as we’re making soup we should make use of them. Strain the broth into the cup of a blender, then return it to the pan. Add the white asparagus, potatoes, and lemongrass. Squeeze a lemon into the soup, add salt and pepper to taste. Let it simmer until the potatoes are soft, then pour the soup into the blender and puree until smooth.

Peel the golden beet, and slice it as thinly as possible. I really need a mandoline.
Lay the slices out on a baking sheet, and put them in the oven at 325. Watch them carefully, making sure they crisp up but don’t burn. Foodista said to use olive oil but I didn’t have a spray and I found just drizzling oil on them caused a lot of the chips to stay soft and not crisp.

Slice the lox into long, thin strips, and the green asparagus into little disks. Remove the tips of the asparagus, and cook them separately in the saucepan used earlier for the salad. Keep the soup warm. Five minutes before serving, stir in the green asparagus, and bring to a simmer. When the asparagus is softened, but still crisp, take the soup off the heat and stir in the lox. Spoon into bowls, float a beet chip in the center, and place two asparagus tips on top.

Chive Crepe with Roasted Asparagus and Goat Cheese

-3/4 cup milk
-3 eggs
-1/2 t salt
-1 cup flour
-1/4 cup butter, melted
-2 tablespoons minced chives
-12 thin asparagus spears
-4 oz goat cheese

Mix the milk, eggs, and 1/2 cup of water in the blender. Just pulse a couple times to get it all mixed. Add the salt and flour, blend again to make a smooth batter, then add the butter. Pour into a bowl, and mix the chives in. Refrigerate the batter for at least an hour.

Set the oven at 400. Put the asparagus on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Bake for 10 minutes, turning the spears at five minutes. When they come out, they should be crispy and a little shriveled.
To make the crepes, heat a medium-large nonstick pan. Brush with melted butter. Ladle in a small amount of batter, enough that it looks like it will barely cover the surface of the pan. Tilt the pan rapidly to cover it. Do this quickly (and it shouldn’t be too hard) so that if you’re short, you can add a little more batter. Pay attention to how much batter is in the ladle so you can reproduce successful crepes. After a while, the crepe should release itself from the pan and slide around easily. Flip it, and cook both sides so that they have golden brown spots. Set the finished crepes aside on a plate. Butter the pan between crepes.
On each crepe, place 3 asparagus spears, and crumble about an ounce of goat cheese down the length of them. I also added a sliver of leftover lox in each, which was a great decision. Roll the crepe in a triangular narrow-bottom/wide-top manner.


When you’ve finished rolling the crepes, wipe the asparagus’ baking sheet clean and put the crepes in the oven for a few minutes so the cheese gets soft and warm. This recipe makes 4 rolled crepes, but I would recommend 2 crepes per person if you want a fuller meal, in which case just double the non-crepe ingredients.

Report

This meal was a success. Every dish aside from the salad was completely delicious, and an easy contender for a repeat. I made crepes a long time ago, in cooking class, but didn’t remember anything about it, so I had my sister instruct me in cooking them. It’s remarkably easy, and it really makes me wonder why you don’t see crepes everywhere all the time. The soup was similarly easy and great. It was fun to make asparagus stock, and it had a really nice tart flavor alongside a creamy texture. The one thing I would change is maybe take the lox out of the soup and add it to the crepes.
As for the salad, the anchovies were a mistake. My mother eats kosher so I haven’t used pork or shellfish in any of these recipes – cured ham would have been a much better source of salt. That said, the asparagus was pretty good in my opinion, though the women at the table left a lot of white on their plates. The golden beets were amazing. A really great find. I like red beets, but they have that kind of musky taste to them. These golden beets had none of that – just sweet and solid yet tender and with a really beautiful color. I also read that they don’t stain like red beets do, so they’re even better!
The tart was mega easy, as well. I love fruit tarts, so I’ll definitely be making some more over the course of the blog.
I’m still experimenting with the structure of this blog. I’m going to try to smooth out the inconsistent photography, for sure. I’m not certain I can keep up with a big-effort meal every week, but I want to keep trying at that pace, for now.  I’m also trying to work out a good words-photo balance, so if anyone out there has strong feelings one way or the other, tell me what you think!

Next week: Summer Squash, For Real

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1 Comment

  1. Julie

     /  June 11, 2012

    Make the crepes again!

    Reply

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