I do love you so, but I am writing to let you know that, out of economic necessity, I think we should start seeing other local spring vegetables on my plate. Our relationship is not over. Not by a long shot. I will always fall prey to your charms when you show up at farmers markets in Maine in early May. Then, I will spring for a $6 (½-pound) bundle of organic spears, steam them perfectly, adorn them with only butter and salt, and keep you all to myself. But after that cozy rendezvous for two, I simply must play the field to best feed my friends and family.
I’m not really complaining about your price tag — and I’ve seen non-organic local spears selling for as “little” as $8/pound. While I’m not a grower myself, I understand the work required to raise asparagus sustainably this far North. And I know you must be harvested by hand, hands that need to earn a living wage. Still, if I spend $12/pound for any vegetable, my budget dictates that I must make it last a couple of meals. Therefore, I’m turning into techniques I learned in culinary school for stretching expensive ingredients, skills that make eaters feel their portion of the ingredient is much bigger than it is.
There are two ways for me to slice and dice you, asparagus, to make you appear more abundant in the bowl.
When you’re raw, I can use a potato peeler to shave you lengthwise, like a carrot. Holding the spear just below its delicate flowering tip between my left thumb and index finger, I will lay it on top of an overturned 4-quart saucepan. This position gives my right-hand knuckles ample room above the countertop to whittle the spear into six, thin ribbons. If I split the tip in half lengthwise, and then into quarters, the total yield per spear will be 10 pieces. That number makes a more substantial impression than one lonely spear would.
When you’re blasted for three minutes in boiling salted water and then shocked in ice water to set your spring greenness, I can store you in the fridge for days. From there, I will cut one spear into more than a dozen bite-sized pieces by splitting it lengthwise down the middle and then slicing those on the diagonal, which makes the pieces appear bigger than a straight cut would. A dozen pieces can make you appear plentiful in dishes from spring vegetable stir-fries to goat cheese and asparagus pizza pies.
No matter how I cut you, from now on, expect to find friends in the bowl with you. In her book “Vegetable Literacy,” vegetarian chef Deborah Madison says you play well with other spring vegetables like peas, fava beans, green garlic, young turnips and sorrel. Let me add to that list Maine fiddlehead ferns, off-label products like kale rabe, bolting winter greens, any storage crops hanging around (multi-colored carrots, watermelon radishes and gnarly celery root), and, last but not least, farm- fresh spring eggs.
I can make a quick, satisfying meal (breakfast, lunch or dinner) out of three blanched asparagus spears, two eggs and a single king oyster mushroom. In a nonstick skillet in a glug of olive oil, I’ll brown the thickly sliced mushroom. I’ll crisscross the spears over the cooked mushroom bits and crack eggs into the space between the asparagus posts. I’ll cover the skillet and wait for the contained heat to finish cooking the eggs. A sprinkle of Aleppo pepper flakes will add a finishing touch of color and spice.
For a lighter meal, I can assemble a bowl of shaved yellow carrots, thinly sliced purple daikon radish and torn tender spinach. Placing asparagus ribbons and quartered tips prominently on top, I’m confident eaters will recall you as a main ingredient. To transform this asparagus-forward lunch into dinner, I’ll toss in handfuls of cooked grains and beans and dress it with a homemade vinaigrette.
So you see, my very dear (in both senses of the word) local asparagus, I absolutely do treasure our time together. I have no of dropping you like a hot potato. Just know that I may prepare you as the filling for said spud as I work to stretch my food budget to include you and all the other local vegetables Maine farmers have on offer.
Local foods eating advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the editor of Edible Maine magazine and author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column in the Portland Press Herald about sustainably and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at: [email protected]
Spring Vegetable Sauté with Mustard Mash and Gravy
FOR THE SPRING VEGETABLE SAUTE:
4 asparagus spears, washed and trimmed
1/2-pound broccoli, kale or mustard green rabe, washed and trimmed
1/4-pound fiddleheads, washed and trimmed
3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
FOR THE MUSTARD MASH:
4 yellow flesh potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch squares
1 medium celeriac bulb, peeled and cut into 1-inch squares
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup milk
2 teaspoons grainy mustard
FOR THE MUSTARD GRAVY:
3 tablespoons butter
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup dark beer
1 cup chicken stock
1 heaping tablespoon grainy mustard
To blanch the vegetables, place a gallon of cold water and 2 cups of ice cubes in a large bowl. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Drop the asparagus into the boiling water. Cook for 3 minutes. Use a pair of tongs to transfer the asparagus to the ice bath to cool. Drop the rabe into the boiling water and cook until the thick stems are tender, 4-5 minutes. Use a pair of tongs to transfer the rabe to the ice bath to cool. Add another cup of ice to the bowl. Drop the fiddleheads unto the boiling water and cook for 15 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the fiddleheads to the ice bath to cool. When all the vegetables are cool, drain the water from them and spread them on a clean dish towel to dry. When the asparagus is dry, slice each spear lengthwise. Then make five diagonal cuts to each half of spear to yield a total of 48 pieces.
To make the mash, place the potatoes and celeriac in the pot. Cover with cold water and add 1 teaspoon salt. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat, and simmer the vegetables until tender, 5-6 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and drain the water from the vegetables. Return the vegetables to the pot and let them steam there for 5 minutes. Add the butter and milk and mash the vegetables to the desired texture. Stir in the mustard and salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pot to keep the potatoes warm while you prepare the gravy.
To make the gravy, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the shallots and cook until they are tender, 5-6 minutes. Add the flour and stir. Cook this roux for 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in the beer, followed by the chicken stock. Simmer as the gravy thickens, 3-4 minutes. Stir in the mustard and salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm over low heat while you sauté the blanched vegetables.
To sauté the vegetables, add 3 tablespoons olive oil to a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until the slices start to turn golden brown; don’t let them burn. Add the blanched vegetables and stir to combine. Cook until the vegetables are warmed through. Season with salt and serve warm with the mustard mash and gravy.
Green Plate Special: Why aren’t you making your own salad dressing?