May 22, 2012

To Begin and to End

What you do in between is really up to you. I offer you today only the beginning and the ending of something. But a delicious beginning and ending it shall be, I promise. I’ve recovered from all recent whirlwinds, found myself on stable ground again, bought a guitar (a relief—living without one was like a cruel form of torture or sensory deprivation), and I am beginning to cook again. (Did anyone else feel like the recent astrological activity made everything and everyone crazy?) I’m also beginning to realize that spring is quickly slipping through my fingers and that it is time, high time, to seize hold of its finest before the deluge of summer squashes and corn and tomatoes begin vying for attention. It’s already starting—last night at the Headlands Center for the Arts I ate my first cherry of the season, and my first plum, all swirled and rosy in a bit of cardamom-scented honey-yogurt. But we’ll save that for another time.

What I have for you today concerns asparagus. And it concerns a way of eating asparagus that was previously unknown to me. Most likely you are all fluent in this method. Probably you’ve been doing this since you could walk. But to me, it’s been a revelation. That method is raw, that is: DO NOT COOK THE ASPARAGUS. It seems wrong at first—you think back to all of the asperges au vinaigre you have consumed, or the grilled spears with parmesan that you buy pre-made at your local specialty food shop, or the steamed kind that you slide a poached egg over, and you feel in some sort of a deep, intrinsic way, that this just simply can not be. But of course it is. David Tanis said so—and when, I ask you, is he ever wrong?

The recipe is not even a recipe: I didn’t measure a single thing while I prepared it. But that’s honestly my favorite way to cook. Baking, of course, is another story all together, and as we learned here and here, I tend to be soothed, in those moments, by the careful and precise need for measurements and weights, ounces and teaspoons, leveling off and carefully folding, and all of those other little details that come together to make the baked thing what it is—in all of its delicate complexity, coming down, essentially, to the touch and the hand of the baker. Cooking is similarly defined by touch—by individual nuance—but in a way that tends to be more forgiving I think. And you can often adjust as you go.  

The difficult thing about this recipe is a practical, skill-based one. It has to do with the shaving of the asparagus. Tanis recommends using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, or a mandoline. My guess, after sweating through the process and mildly cursing the dull blade of my vegetable peeler, is that the mandoline would be your best bet. But I don’t like to be dissuaded by a lack of fancy tools and neither should you. The vegetable peeler works, it’s just harder than you think it will be, and it took me a little practice to get the method down. I worked toward my body rather than away from it, which seemed to be easier, and I also tried to apply a firm and even pressure. The great thing here is that if you mess up, it really doesn’t matter, you just need to have achieved, in the end, some relatively thin strips of the vegetable, to be tossed in that magical combination of lemon and olive oil and salt.

What you will have as you progress through this “recipe” is a layering of thinly shaved asparagus; a few leaves of arugula—just enough to catch and fill all of the spaces between the thin, long spears; a generous squeeze of a lemon; and a drizzle of slippery olive oil—all bedecked with salt and pepper and thin shavings of parmigiano reggiano. This salad is an ideal springtime beginning for a meal of any size or scope. It could even, truth be told, make a meal all on its own. The asparagus, when raw, is crisp and fresh and tastes like the purest essence of asparagus that you’ve never tried. It also stands up sturdily to the acid of the lemon, making this salad something that could be prepared (with the exception of the arugula leaves) a day or so in advance.

It is truly my new favorite thing; and above all, my new favorite way to do asparagus.

Now, I take you to the end of the meal. Fast forward through time a bit—you’ve started with that delicious salad, you’ve received rave reviews all throughout: raw asparagus—they will cry—what a revelation! You’ve served some bit of fish with dill and capers, or a pistachio-crusted bird of some variety, or some nice, tender, well-marbleized piece of beef. Your guests are happy and full and sighing and letting the warm, springtime sun graze their bare shoulders. The glasses are being emptied. The beginnings of an evening light are starting to descend. You—calm and collected, effortless and relaxed—take out a bowl of gleaming, juicy strawberries, and set it next to a dish of just-whipped cream; cream that has been, in all manner of ethereal beauty, infused with chamomile blossoms.

This is your next springtime revelation—something that, like the asparagus, is so simple and unfussy that you won’t believe the result; you won’t believe that you haven’t ever done this before. You truly won’t be able to imagine why it has taken you so long to discover this particular form of pleasure. It’s true. Try it, and get back to me.

All you need to do for this one is infuse some warm cream with chamomile tea bags, let that cool, and then, just before serving, whip it briskly with some more cold cream, arriving, at last, at something so light and delicate, so utterly different and yet altogether the same as whipped cream. Something that you feel should be served in a meadow, on a farm, underneath the boughs of an old oak (or something to that effect). It’s a truly luscious, yet also easy and light, dessert. The recipe calls for strawberries that have been quartered and macerated, but I think you could also just set out a bowl of just-washed strawberries with their hulls intact, and allow your guests to dip them as they go—adding a little interactive effect to the whole affair. It will be splendid in any case.

I have called this a beginning and an end, but the reality is that when I made these two dishes, I ate them in short succession of one another. It was a good early lunch. It was something that felt like bookends, but that was also a thing all its own. So you could take the aforementioned route of making this a start and a finish, or you could do nothing of the kind. You could simply sit yourself down and eat two springtime classics one after the other. You could sigh when you are done and feel happy. You could remember why it is important to take note of the spring season before it leaves, always too quickly, and typically with very little warning.

Asparagus Salad with Arugula and Parmesan (adapted from David Tanis, The New York Times, City Kitchen, April 2012)

For one serving, plus a little extra

8 medium asparagus spears
The juice of half a lemon
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
A handful of arugula leaves
Salt and pepper
Parmigiano reggiano for shaving

Wash the asparagus and trim by snapping off the ends. Using a vegetable peeler, or, preferably, a mandoline, shave the asparagus into thin ribbons and place in a bowl. Squeeze the juice of half of a lemon onto the asparagus ribbons and drizzle over the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and toss all of this together with a handful of arugula leaves. Plate the salad and shave some parmigiano over. Finish with a little freshly ground pepper.

Strawberries with Chamomile Cream (adapted from Bon App├ętit, May 2012)

For many servings

1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 chamomile tea bags
2 pints organic strawberries
3 tablespoons sugar

Warm half a cup of the heavy cream in a small saucepan until small bubbles begin to form on the surface and around the edges. Remove from the heat and immerse the tea bags in the cream, pushing them down a bit into the liquid. Let steep for 20 minutes. Remove the tea bags, place in a medium mixing bowl and refrigerate.

Meanwhile, hull and quarter the strawberries. Place them into a bowl and sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the sugar over. Let the strawberries macerate at room temperature.

In about 2 hours, when the cream has thoroughly chilled, pour into it the remaining half-cup of cold cream and the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar, and whip until it resembles a soft whipped cream. 

Place some of the strawberries into a bowl, pour or dollop the cream over top.

1 comment:

  1. Today, for the third time, I made the chamomile cream, as a result of your blog. The artfulness and luxury of it belies its simplicity -- a combination I wish I could achieve in other areas of my life. Your blog always inspires! XO