Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Is it Asparagus Yet?

I admit, I am not always the best prepared when it comes to putting lesson plans together. Today I realized I had classes to teach, but pressures on the rest of my schedule had prevented me from doing the usual due diligence.

I looked around the produce section for inspiration and what did I see? Asparagus, of course. It's just barely in season in this part of the world. In fact, I paid a visit to the Washington Youth Garden at the National Arboretum this morning and was handed a fresh spear snapped right out of the ground. I bit into it and immediately tasted that grassy, pea-like flavor that is so much more subtle, greener, more garden-like, than the flavor of cooked asparagus. Also much fresher and crisper than store-bought asparagus that has typically been a week or more on the road before you buy it. (The produce man will continually snip off the browned ends to make the asparagus appear fresher.)

I don't mean to rant about asparagus, only to remind people that it is, after all, a vegetable that comes out of the ground. In fact, it is a wonderful vegetable if only in the sense that it is a perennial, meaning it comes back year after year-- often for 10 to 20 years, as asparagus is a long-lived plant. You simple bury a "crown" in light, well-drained soil with plenty of sun. Don't harvest at all the first year and only a little the second year. By the third year you can pick as much as you want.

Asparagus is the first spring vegetable ready for harvest. At peak season, it will be growing like mad. You may be picking it every day just to keep up. At the tip of the stem--or "spear"--is a bud that will blossom into a willowy display of lacelike foliage that seems to be in a state of absolute riot. Otherwise we eat as much as we can, usually poached or steamed, although some cooks have taken to broiling or grilling asparagus. I don't see much sense in cooking asparagus to death or burning it over hot coals. The flavor is so ephemeral, so singular and elusive, it should be allowed to speak for itself, without so much interference, I think.

Anyway, I spotted the asparagus display at the local Whole Foods and that became my lesson plan. The asparagus and some eggs to make a quick frittata, the Italian idea of an open-faced omelet.

This is such an easy dish, I'm almost ashamed to admit I constructed a whole class around it. But the kids were ecstatic. They were begging for more.

First, poach a bunch of asparagus in salted water until they are just tender. I know some chefs like to tie the asparagus in bundles and cook it in a stock pot. But I've been most successful cooking asparagus in shallow water, say a skillet of water brought to boil. The spears are not agitated so much this way and I can hover over them, picking them out of the water with a pair of tongs at the very moment they are cooked through.

Plunge the cooked spears into a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking. Drain and blot the asparagus dry on paper towels. Do the same thing with some baby potatoes cut into quarters.

Cut the asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces. Over moderately-high heat, heat a large non-stick skillet and coat the bottom with extra-virgin olive oil. Place the cooked potatoes in the bottom of the skillet. After they begin to sizzle, toss once or twice. Add the aspargus. Then pour in 12 beaten eggs seasoned with salt and pepper.

(You can use regular, store-bought eggs for this. But try pasture-raised eggs sometime from a local farmer or farmer's market. The yolks have a much deeper, saffron color to them that infuses the whole dish. Only chickens that forage on greens in the pasture, ingesting all that beta-carotene, lay eggs like this. We get them with our farm subscription.)

Use a heat-proof spatula to work around the edges of the egg as it begins to cook, lifting the edge here and there and tilting the skillet so the uncooked egg runs underneath. When nearly all of the egg is cooked through, crumble goat cheese and then chopped chives over the whole thing, then place under the broiler for a few minutes, or until the frittata has puffed up and is well-browned around the edges. (Another method is to flip the frittata in the pan like a pancake. But I don't recommend this for beginners unless you like to eat your eggs off the floor.) Keep an eye on it so it doesn't burn. It will make a mighty impressive sight.

Remove the frittata from the oven. Use the spatula to loosen the edges of the frittata and slide the whole thing--tipping the skillet until the pie begins to slide away--onto a large cutting board. Slice into 10 or 12 good wedges and serve either warm as is, with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, or room temperature with a fresh, green salad.

I'm not making this up: The kids were begging for seconds. "It looks just like pizza!" they screamed when I brought the frittata to the table.

If you don't have asparagus, you can make a frittata like this with almost anything. This time of year, I also like to make a frittata with canned roasted red peppers and sauteed red onion and marinated artichokes dusted with pecorino cheese. It's delicious with a glass of nicely chilled Chablis. .

2 comments:

courtney said...

I find it funny how people who have never had a frittata before get so amazed by it. I made one as part of our Easter brunch. I didn't even have any because my Father in-kept going back for more. "What did you say this was? It's SO good. Dianne (his wife) you'll have to learn how to make this".

He was still talking about it days later.

Ours had caramalized onions and mushrooms with cheddar.

Ed Bruske said...

Pssst. Courtney. Keep your voice down. Others might hear. Before you know it, they'll be making frittatas and the secret will be out...

Another secret: You can make them with Egg Beaters. I have a client who gets an Egg Beater frittata for breakfast almost on a weekly basis. They don't brown quite as well. Otherwise, you can't tell the difference. Maybe your father-in-law would like them.