Wednesday, May 30, 2007

How to Cook Asparagus

The Pioneer Valley is famous for it's asparagus. Sasha, Lily & I have been eating very fresh asparagus the past month and a half, sometimes three times a week. It's a good thing at her age Lily gets habitual about food, so she doesn't complain about having the same thing every day. If it were pasta, she wouldn’t mind either. For those who haven't been so lucky, this is just like having fresh corn and tomatoes in August or fresh strawberries in June. And we will get the strawberries in a few weeks. I have to admit that I do prefer corn, tomatoes, and strawberries to asparagus, but who wouldn't? Meanwhile we pick it up at one of five places I have staked out in Hadley, The Asparagus Capital of the World, which it was called until disease wiped out most of the crop in the 1950s. New varieties were planted and some smaller farms continued the tradition, so the "grass" can be still be had for a mere $3 to a whopping $4.75 a bunch depending upon where you find it. Hadley is the town between Amherst and Northampton where the farms and the malls are and which we often pass through on our way to somewhere else. Often at the side of the road, near a house, near a farm, there is an asparagus stand selling bunches sitting in a pan of water with an unmanned box for the money. We prefer what we hear are the less desirous slender stalks instead of the stockier shoots. If you cook your own "grass" you probably break off the bottom segment or two to get rid of the dry bit of the stalk. Here, it's so fresh that you can eat the whole thing if you want, but instead I snap off the bottom 1/2 inch or anything that looks at all imperfect.

Yesterday I stopped to buy a bunch on East Street in Hadley. I had no small bills, so was forced to use the quarters and dimes we save for parking meters. As I was counting the coins, a small old man literally appeared smoking a cigar. He said that since there were two bunches left, I might as well take them both. I told him that I only had the coins for one. That's not what I mean, he said. Take them both. Last night we ate one bunch, and now I have another bunch in the fridge I must admit perhaps now not quite as fresh as the first.

I made some Asparagus soup two weeks ago and am making some now using leftovers. This is today's recipe for the soup and our family instructions for cooking "grass".

How to Cook Asparagus
  • 1 bunch or 1 lb. asparagus
  1. Snap off bottom most segment of each asparagus. It's fun and makes a nice noise. Discard.
  2. Rinse asparagus thoroughly and lay in a wide frying pan or sauté pay with 1/4 inch of water
  3. Put on stove, cover, and cook on high flame for 1-3 minutes depending upon the thickness of stalks and whether you like them crunchy or soft. I poke them with a sharp knife after a minute to see if they are done.

Asparagus Soup
  • 1/2 to 1 lb. steamed asparagus from last night, coarsely chopped
  • 1 to 2 cups chopped onions
  • 1/2 to 1 cup sliced carrots
  • 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil or both, too much is OK, since this is soup
  • 3 to 4 cups chicken broth
  • 6 ounces grated cheddar cheese (optional)
  • Salt pepper to taste
  1. Sauté onions in butter on med-low heat for as long as you can stand, about 20 minutes. They get sweeter the more you cook them, but don't burn them. Stir occasionally.
  2. Add carrots about 10 minutes into the cooking of the onions. Stir.
  3. Add asparagus and 1/2 teaspoon salt and some pepper, cook for another 15 minutes, stir some more.
  4. Add 1/4 of chicken broth and buzz in a blender or food processor until smooth. Add more broth to the blender if it seems too thick to blend.
  5. Return to pot, add rest of the chicken broth. If you want to do the compulsive French thing and impress people, then pour it through a fine strainer. It's probably worth it, since it will impress yourself. Tip: use a bit of chicken broth to clean off the blender blades and dump this liquid into the pot.
  6. Salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Serve hot with grated cheddar in each bowl or if you need to put grated cheddar directly in the pot, remember the cheese will make your pot harder to clean, but the dishwasher, if you have one, won't complain about cleaning the bowl.
Author's note: I wrote this entry now while I was cooking. It was so good that I had to eat a bowl, even though it's 10am.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How Sweet Is My Valley

Yesterday afternoon I got out of the car in the driveway and I was puzzled. I thought, our driveway here smells so good. What is it? I paused for a while trying to figure it out. Was it the Lilac bush with only two clumps of flowers?
Nah, that's not enough to perfume a big area. Aha, it must be the Lily-of-the-Valley!

There is a huge patch near the entrance to our driveway about 20 feet from where I was sniffing, and a tiny patch in the back of the house. I thanked the plants and went into the house.

It was warm, so I opened the kitchen window when I got in. A few minutes later, as I was indoors I almost thought I was smelling Yankee (scented) Candle stuff. This time I had a shorter period of contemplation when I realized I now smelled the honey scent of the flowers outside wafting in.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

NPR Misses Story: Gluten-Free Fad

I'm not sure what's in the air, must be radio broadcasts today, but NPR this morning had a piece on the "fad" of going wheat-free. They basically discounted (my take) the "less than 1%" of the country who are celiacs. And they went on about the amazing trend of people to forgo wheat. Periodically they would return to a chef who was in the process of making the most amazing glutenous pizza dough.

Of course they missed that real story that people take many years to be diagnosed and their number at 2.5 million people is not an insignificant number, more than the number of blind people and about the same as the number of epileptics. Sheesh!