Every time I walk around the Farmers Market I feel like I am on a treasure hunt. There is an element of familiarity with each vender, but also curiosity as the seasons transition from the sparse offerings of early spring to the abundant fall harvest. At every visit, I anticipate the changing produce and new discoveries. Fortunately, this past week was no exception for I discovered sorrel.
In my area, sorrel is only available at Farmers Markets. It is a green leafy vegetable with a bright lemony flavor. It is a hardy plant but for some reason does not have wide appeal. However, every vegetable centered cookbook I own has a few sorrel recipes. Therefore, it must have some appeal. If Deborah Madison and Alice Walters took the time to highlight this vegetable, it is worth bringing home to see for myself.
Every Spring tender asparagus spears emerge out of the dirt, like miniature trees from an underground world. It is so cool how the spears seem to pop up out of nothing and creep upward toward the sun. It is a wonder to me how these funny looking green stalks grow.
Up until a few years ago, I had no clue about their growth habit until I saw them sprouting in my sister’s garden. Also, the spears don’t just die away after weeks of cutting them back. Eventually, the remaining tips of the spears will loosen and sprout forth 4 to 6 foot feathery fronds for the remaining summer. Fortunately, come the following Spring, this miracle occurs again and asparagus spears emerge for another season.
If an opportunity comes your way, eating freshly picked asparagus is a special treat. Even if you do not like asparagus, you might be pleasantly surprised once you have tasted the newly picked spears. It is a wonder how different freshly grown asparagus tastes compared to the store-bought kind. There is a slightly bitter, slightly sweet, distinctive greenish earthy flavor. Honestly, any vegetable straight from a garden tastes better because it is fresher and given more TLC. I am always grateful for the garden gifts from my sister and friends.
Like a lot of vegetables, asparagus is very easy to prepare and does not require a detailed recipe to enjoy. The most important consideration is to not over cook them. The total amount of cooking time will depend on how thick the spears are, and your method of cooking. Some of my favorite ways to cook asparagus are: simmering, braising, roasting, and grilling. All methods produce good results. Ultimately, no matter which way you want to prepare them, just cook them until they are tender and have a slight crispness when you bite into one.
How to Prep Asparagus
If you have never made asparagus here are some tips. There is some debate about how to prep asparagus. Should you peel them? Do the ends need trimming? Do you need a fancy asparagus steamer to make them? First, no fancy steamer pot required. I am not a big gadget person and work very hard to buy kitchen items that have more than one purpose. Steaming is a great way to cook asparagus and can effectively be done without an asparagus steamer in a microwave oven.
Trimming off the woody ends is a good idea, especially for the thicker stalks. Thin stalks don’t always need to be trimmed, but the thick ones do. I usually hold the bottom of a spear with one hand and place the other hand near the center of the stalk, then bend the two points downwards. The theory is asparagus will break at the place where the woody tip ends. This sounds good in theory, but it does not work perfectly all the time. Unfortunately, sometimes bending the stalk breaks off tender and edible sections.
Another trimming method is, to line the asparagus up end to end and cut off the ends about 1 1/2 inches to 2 inches from the bottom. You can see a change in color in the spear as they it gets less woody. The woody part will be whiter in color. Additionally, you can feel with your fingertips where the woody part ends. The woody part will be harder and denser.
To peel or not to peel, that is the question. My answer is sometimes I peel the spears, sometimes I don’t. There is no particular reason for my decision and most of the time I leave the spears alone. Honestly, it depends on how much time I have or how fancy I want to be. If you have older and fatter asparagus, the skin is tougher and not as pleasant to eat. Whereas the thinner stalks have tender skin and easier to eat.
To peel the skin, hold the asparagus near the tip in your non-active hand with the cut end pointing away from you. Hold the vegetable peeler in the other hand and begin in a downward motion, peeling off the skin. Start about a third of the way down from the tip and move to the bottom. You don’t want to peel off a lot of the spear, only the thin layer of skin.
When I am in a hurry or preoccupied with another part of the meal, I like to simmer asparagus for around 4 minutes in salted boiling water. Once drained, I give them a light coating of olive oil, a sprinkle of flaky sea salt and add minced herbs and/or lemon zest. It is as easy as that. You can add lemon juice or any acid, but it will change the color from bright green to khaki green.
There are times when I want to give my vegetables some extra pizzazz as a part of a composed meal. Asparagus with orange mayonnaise dressing adds pizzazz and offers an unexpected flavor with your asparagus and dinner. It is perfect for asparagus served at room temperature or cold. This recipe is easily adaptable, just add the amount of orange juice to give your mayonnaise the consistently and orange flavor that you want. Additionally, it is easy to prepare a head of time and If you own an immersion blender, even easier to make.
Homemade mayonnaise is a new discovery of mine. I love how light the flavor is. Some recipes call for extra virgin olive oil, but I find that it has too strong of a flavor so I use olive oil instead. If you do not have a blender, food processor or immersion blender, you can still make mayonnaise the old-fashioned way. Use a sturdy bowl, a good wire whisk, and a lot of continuous whisking by hand power. I think it is worth it.
This recipe is a combo of two. I used J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s technique for quick homemade mayonnaise using an immersion blender. His technique has produced the most consistent results for me. I have made mayonnaise with my food processor, but the success depends on how slowly the oil drips into the eggs while the machine is running.
The orange mayonnaise comes from Deborah Madison’s cookbook, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I was intrigued with her suggestion to use this with asparagus and wanted to try it out. I love her work and she is a great resource for vegetarian cooking.
As usual, Deborah Madison is right on. The orange mayonnaise brings a delicate and unexpected fruity orange flavor with the asparagus. She also recommends using the orange mayonnaise with broccoli, fennel, and cauliflower.
A delightful recipe of tender Spring Asparagus with Orange Mayonnaise Dressing. The delicate flavors of the dressing add subtly and sophistication to a vegetable platter or side dish with salmon, chicken or grilled meats.
The mayonnaise recipe is adapted from The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Foolproof Homemade Mayonnaise, and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison.
For the Asparagus
1 pound asparagus, cleaned and woody ends trimmed
Orange Mayonnaise Dressing
1 cup homemade mayonnaise
zest from half an orange
4 Tbs freshly squeezed orange juice, or more to taste
Mayonnaise - makes 2 cups
2 egg yolks
1 Tbs lemon juice
2 tsp Dijon mustard
One small clove garlic, finely minced or grated with a microplane (optional)
pinch of Kosher salt
1-2 Tbs water
1 cup of canola oil
1 cup olive oil
Trim the asparagus as needed. If you peel them, hold each asparagus at the tip and beginning around a third of the way down, gently peel off the thin skin with a vegetable peeler. Peel down lengthwise along the steam and work your way around.
Prepare an ice bath for the asparagus. Fill a medium bowl part way with ice and add water to cover. Set the bowl aside near the stove.
Put water in a shallow sauce pan and add a pinch of kosher salt. Turn the heat to high and bring the water to a bowl. Add the trimmed asparagus and simmer in the boiling water about 4 minutes. The total cooking time will depend on how thick the asparagus spears are. The asparagus should be tender, but still have some crispness and look bright green.
Remove the asparagus with tongs or a spider, and place in the ice bath to stop the cooking and keep the asparagus bright green.
Once cooled, remove the asparagus from the ice bath and dry on clean kitchen towel. (Ahead of time note, wrap the asparagus in a paper towel and place in a plastic bag and put in the refrigerator until you need them. Eat the asparagus the same day you cook them.
Immersion blender method by Kenji Lopez-Alt: Use a tall cup just large enough for the immersion blender head to fit in, place the egg yolks, lemon juice, mustard, garlic, salt, and one tablespoon of water inside the cup. Slowly add the canola oil to the eggs then slide the head of the immersion blender inside the cup until it rests on the bottom. Hold onto the cup with one hand and turn on the immersion blender. The egg and oil will begin to emulsify. As the oil get pulled down to the bottom, very slowly raise the immersion blender up. You will see the mayonnaise begin to form and the oil being sucked towards to bottom and emulsify.
Once all the oil has emulsified, turn off the immersion blender and scrape out with a rubber spatula, the mayonnaise into a small mixing bowl large enough to whisk in the remaining oil. Hold the bowl steady with your inactive hand and whisk up the mayonnaise. Drizzle in the olive oil small amounts at a time, about a tablespoon, into the mayonnaise, and vigorously whisk the mayonnaise to incorporate the olive oil. Continue to whisk in the olive oil in small increments until all the oil is added. The mayonnaise will last for two weeks in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
Orange Mayonnaise Dressing
Add one cup of homemade mayonnaise to a small mixing bowl. Add the orange zest and 2 tablespoons of the orange juice. Whisk all the ingredients together. Taste the mayonnaise and add more orange juice, one tablespoon at a time until you get the right flavor and consistency you want. The orange mayonnaise will last for about one week in the refrigerator.
When done, spoon into a small serving bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until you are ready to serve the asparagus.
Arrange the asparagus on a serving plate and drizzle the orange mayonnaise across the asparagus.
Homemade mayonnaise in a blender or food processor.
Add the egg yolks, lemon juice, mustard, pinch of salt, garlic (if using), and one tablespoon of water into the bowl of your appliance. Mix together. With the motor running very slowly add the canola oil through the hole of the feed tube. Add the olive oil by hand the same way as described for the immersion blender technique.
Do you know that feeling you get when the family or friends are together and all is good with the world? It can happen spontaneously by a simple gesture or after a big heartfelt moment. I treasure those moments, the feeling of complete satisfaction and joy. Peace. At those times the little things do add up and are greatly appreciated. A simple “Thank you”, carries a generous gratitude, “You are doing a great job”, gives a small boost of confidence, “I am here”, builds reassurance that you are not alone. Even a home cooked meal creates a time and place to gather family and or friends together, and can reinforce all the above.
I know it sounds cliché, but in our home that moment and feeling would happen when we served pasta for dinner. When pasta was on the table, everyone was happy. A pasta dinner satisfied all taste and food preferences in the family. There were no protests at dinner, even if it did include an ingredient that was not a particular favorite. That offending food would be pushed aside and everything else would be devoured without complaint. When the, “… What?… Why? …Really?…Again? …I hate that,” for dinner drama was not a focal point of the evening, the five of us would be relaxed, the conversation would flow, jokes told, and all was right with the world.
When I would combine two favorite foods in one meal, that would make the evening a special occasion. My children love ham almost as much as they love pasta. Pasta with ham and peas would satisfy two cravings, and even some of the peas would be eaten. It is one of the meals and recipes most frequently requested by my sons. Now that they are independent, they enjoy cooking this meal for their friends and significant others. My oldest son claims that it was this meal that jump-started his relationship with the girl of his dreams. That loving couple is recently happily married, so you never know where a home cooked pasta dinner will lead.
When it’s pasta for dinner, all is right with the world.
Pasta with ham and spring vegetables is a very versatile meal and one that I adapt frequently. The base of this recipe is pasta with ham, cream and peas, but the asparagus is so good this time of year that I wanted to include it. I have been really enjoying asparagus with leeks and tarragon so I omitted the cream to focus on the spring vegetables and ham. If you are interested in using cream add about a 1/2 cup or less to the sauce around the time you add the ham and peas.
The spring vegetable and tarragon combination is a melody of its own, and would be a delicious vegetarian option without the ham.
As with a lot of pasta meals, recipes are guidelines and can be adapted based on what odd and ends of vegetables are in the frig calling out to be used. Enjoy!
1 lb pasta, penne, farfalle or fusilli are great choices
12 oz cured ham, sliced in strips 1 inch by 1/4 inch
1 cup fresh or thawed frozen peas
1 to 2 lbs of asparagus
1 small leek, cleaned and white and light green parts sliced thin
1/2 cup vegetable broth, preferably homemade or low salt store bought
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
3 garlic cloves,minced
2 Tbls chopped fresh tarragon, plus one sprig of tarragon
1 Tb olive oil
1-2 Tb butter
Prep all ingredients before you begin cooking.
Clean and cut off the woody end of each asparagus spear. Hold onto to each end of an asparagus spear and bend it bringing both ends together. Where it snaps off, the bottom portion is the woody tip, discard. Cut the remainder of the asparagus spears into thirds.
Peel the garlic and remove the green germ (sprout of a new garlic plant), then mince the garlic,
Slice the ham to even strips shorter than the asparagus.
Fill a 5 qt stock pot halfway to three quarters full with fresh water. Set the stock pot with the water on a burner and turn the heat to high. Bring the water to a rapid boil and cook pasta according to the directions on the back of the pasta box.
Reserve some of the pasta cooking water when finished cooking.
Make the spring vegetable and ham sauce.
Begin preparing the sauce while you are waiting for the water to boil. Melt 1 Tbl olive oil and 1 Tbl butter in a large 12-inch skillet, or sauté pan. Once the butter has melted add the leeks and garlic to the pan. Add a small pinch of Kosher salt and sauté stirring lightly. Add the prepared asparagus and tarragon spear to the leeks and briefly sauté. Add about 1/2 cup vegetable broth, cover the pan, and braise the vegetables on medium heat for about 5 minutes. The asparagus will not be completely cooked through at this point. You want them to still be crisp with some liquid in the pan. Take the top off the skillet and add the sliced ham and peas. Continue cooking the vegetable and ham mixture at a low simmer, uncovered. This should be around 3-5 minutes before the pasta is done. You are just warming up the ham and peas since they are already cooked.
Putting it all together
Once the pasta is done, turn off the heat, scoop out some pasta cooking water and set aside, and drain out the water through a strainer. Return the pasta to the pot on the stove. Add the grated cheese and a small amount of the pasta water, start with about 1/4 cup or less, to the pasta and stir until the cheese is melted and everything is evenly distributed. Add the vegetable and ham sauce, minced tarragon, and 1 Tb of butter or olive oil to he pasta. Stir until mixed through.
Serve immediately with grated cheese and fresh ground black pepper on the side.
1.It is hard to mess up with pasta, with the exception of overcooking it. Over cooked pasta is mushy and miserable. Use the back of the box as a guideline for cooking time and begin tasting a couple of minutes before the recommended total cooking time. Cook the pasta al dente. There will still be a firm texture, but not chewy or raw tasting. The color of the pasta will have an even appearance and there will be nothing mushy or gummy about it.
2. Just like overcooked pasta, overcooked vegetables are a major disappointment. They lose their shape, texture and flavor when they are overcooked. I like my vegetables cooked but still crisp in texture with a bit of freshness left in them. Watch the vegetables and taste for desired doneness.