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Volume 39 Issue 1 • April 23 - May 6, 2009 now in our 39th season

Asparagus and Other Flowers

by Jenn Farmer
Sous Chef at Bartlett's Farm

Spring time has finally arrived, and so have the spring flowers!  While everyone’s minds are on daffodils this week my mind is on another member of the spring flower family: asparagus.  Interestingly asparagus is a member of the lily family.  The asparagus season begins mid-April and lasts for about two months. 

  As a child I would walk the fence line of my grandparent’s farm at dawn, foraging for asparagus.  It was always a wonder to me how the stalks seemed to pop up overnight.  If I didn’t get them first thing in the morning the dairy cows would certainly get to them. I would go out barefoot, (too impatient to get dressed) and get my pajama cuffs soaked in dew, which irritated my mother to no end.  Nevertheless, it was well worth the scolding, to get to eat fresh asparagus for breakfast. 

  My favorite breakfast was asparagus sautéed in a little butter or bacon fat (yep, my family keeps a tin of bacon drippings just for making biscuits and sautéing. Healthy:  no.  Delicious: yes!) an egg, and a piece of crispy toast.  What a simple, yet delicious meal.

  While not everyone has the luxury of being able to pick their own fresh asparagus daily, here are some tips for picking out good asparagus from the market.  Asparagus spears can be thick or thin. Though some people prefer one size over another, it is not necessarily an indicator of quality. Thicker spears may have tougher ends, but these are broken off before cooking anyway. Look for asparagus stalks with firm, tightly closed, deep green or purplish tips (unless you are purchasing white asparagus:  those should be a translucent, creamy white color).  The stalks should be uniformly sized. Also, check the bottom of the spears to see if they are dried up, indicating they are not the freshest.  Since asparagus deteriorates rapidly, it’s important to select bundles that are refrigerated or on ice.  For the same reason, asparagus should be used immediately if possible, or within two or three days of purchase.  To trim your asparagus grasp each end of the stalk and bend it gently until it snaps.  The breaking point is a natural division between the tender stalk and fibrous end.  Tender, pencil thin, asparagus is not necessary to peel.  Larger asparagus stalks sometimes get woody, and need to be peeled. Hold the asparagus flat against a cutting board, and pull the peeler lightly along the stalk to remove the tough outer skin; turning the asparagus as you peel it.

The following recipe is great served as an appetizer, or if you add a poached egg and a spring lettuce salad, you have a light, elegant meal.

Asparagus wrapped in prosciutto with lemon vinaigrette & parmesan.

24 stalks of asparagus, trimmed
Salted, boiling water
6-8 thin slices prosciutto or Serrano ham, cut into about 4 strips each
Parmesan, Romano or grana padano cheese
2 Lemons, zested and juiced
1/3 cup Olive oil  •  Salt & Pepper

  1. Blanche the asparagus in boiling salted water for about 5 to 7 minutes (alternately the asparagus may be tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper and lightly grilled). Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette with the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Toss the warm asparagus in the vinaigrette. 
  2. Wrap the stalks with a ham slice, individually for appetizers or a few stalks in bundles for an entrée or side dish.  Drizzle with any leftover vinaigrette, and garnish with lemon zest and shaved or hand-grated parmesan cheese.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Another culinary flower that reminds me of spring is Saffron.  Saffron is a spice derived from the dried stigma of the saffron crocus flower.  It is the world's most expensive spice by weight since it takes approximately twenty hours of labor to pick 75,000 blossoms.  Those 75,000 blossoms yield approximately 225,000 hand-picked stigmas, which makes about a single pound of saffron spice.  Vivid crimson coloring, slight moistness, elasticity, and lack of broken-off thread debris are all traits of fresh, quality saffron. 

Although saffron is an exotic spice, originating in Asia, it is also frequently used in Mediterranean cuisine.   Portuguese fisherman’s stew would not be the same without a little bit of saffron in it to set it apart from other fish soups.   The vivid color it lends to food can really be a show stopper at a daffodil luncheon or dinner party.  The following are two recipes that made me think of Nantucket and of brilliant daffodils.  Paella is a perfect dinner for a cool, spring evening in Nantucket, full of seafood, and brightly seasoned with saffron.  To top off the meal try these light, buttery almond cookies (they are good for picnics too!)

Paella de la Veracruz

Serves 4 people

2 tsp. olive oil
1 onion, small diced   •   2 garlic cloves chopped
1 red, green or yellow pepper, cut into long slices
4 chicken legs
1 tomato, diced
1 cup of cooked rice
2 cups of warm water
1 pinch saffron threads crushed with spoon, soaked in warm water for 15 min
8 clams, cleaned and 8 mussels, de-bearded
8 small to medium sized shrimps, unpeeled
1/2 lb of fresh seasonal vegetables (asparagus, zucchini, green beans, broccoli, carrots, etc.) sliced.
Salt and pepper to taste ( be aware not to use too much salt,
since saffron can be used as a salt substitute)

Heat the olive oil, over medium-low heat, in a deep sauté pan with a lid.  In the pre-heated pan sauté the garlic and onions for 5 minutes, or until translucent. Add half of the sliced pepper, chicken and tomato.  Cook for about 10-12 minutes until it gets golden and releases its juices. Add the 2 cups of water with the saffron in it. Increase the heat, and when the water boils, add the rice. Cook for 10-15 minutes, Add the clams, and mussels cook for about 5 minutes.  Start to arrange the vegetables and shrimp on top of the pan, making an attractive arrangement.  Cover the pan and turn off fire, let stand for about 7 minutes (until the shrimp is cooked).  Serve Hot!

Saffron & Orange Cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup clarified butter
1 tsp good quality orange extract
1 tbsp cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/4 tsp. ground of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1/4 tsp saffron threads, soaked in a few tablespoons of milk
for about 15 minutes
 Pinch of salt
Extra slivered almonds for garnish

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Mix all the ingredients, until it forms dough, and knead it very gently, mix in a few drops of water if necessary.  Place the dough in the refrigerator for 5-10 minutes.  Form into small balls, and then flatten each into a disc, decorate with slivered almonds.  Place cookies on cookie sheet and bake for about 10-15 minutes, until the bottom of the cookies start browning.
  2. Turn off the oven and leave the cookies in the oven until the tops turn slightly brown (they can burn quickly- hence turning the oven off for the finishing step.)  Remove the cookies from pan and let cool on a rack.
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