Monday, June 4, 2012

The Last Gasp of Aspara-gasp (Sigh)

With the last few local asparagus  in  market bins I was reminded to make a favorite recipe from
Faith Willinger's glorious book, RED, WHITE & GREENS .  It's kind of perfect to make this dish, Penne with Asparagus-Lemon Sauce, as the coda to the other asparagus dishes that I've enjoyed for the past few weeks as it uses the stalk in a few ways to complete the dish.

4 - 6 servings

Faith says that she was inspired to make this dish by a lemon peel-olive oil pasta that she enjoyed from one of her favorite Tuscan home cooks .She has lived in Tuscany for decades

1 pound fresh asparagus
5 - 6 quarts water
2 - 3 tablespoons sea salt
1 teaspoon minced lemon zest
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground pepper
14-16 ounces penne or short pasta
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1.   Snap the tough butt ends off the asparagus or peel to  the tender core.  Cut the stems into 1-inch pieces.  reserve the asparagus tips.
2.   Bring 5 - 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil, add 2 - 3 tablespoons salt, and cook asparagus stems for 6 - 8 minutes until soft and totally tender.  Remove stems with a slotted spoon, refresh in cold water, and drain.
3.  Cook the tips in the boiling water for 3 - 5 minutes until tender, remove with a slotted spoon, refresh in cold water, and drain.  Reserve asparagus cooking water.
4.   Puree the stems in a food processor with lemon zest, extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup asparagus cooking, and salt and pepper to taste: transfer the sauce to a 3-quart pot.
5.   Return the remaining asparagus cooking water to a rolling boil, add the pasta, and cook until it still offers considerable resistance to the tooth, around  three quarters the recommended cooking time.  Drain, reserving 2 cups of pasta water.  Add pasta, asparagus tips, and 1/2 cup starchy water to asparagus stem puree and cook in a 3-quart pot over highest heat, stirring for 3 - 5 minutes until pasta is almost cooked and sauces coats pasta.  Add more pasta water, 1/4 cup at a time, if sauce becomes too dry.  Sauce should surround pasta but be slightly liquid since cheese will thicken it.
6.   Add the grated Parmesan, heat for an additional minute to melt the cheese, and serve immediately.

When you make a dish as important as this one it needs to be shared.  And so I did - with a couple of friends from the "left bank" (Kingston) in town for a shopping expedition.  I added a few other dishes and there we had it, an ode-to-late-Spring lunch.

I made a salad with blanched sugar snap peas - which are as advertised, snappy as in crunchy and sugar sweet - with thinly sliced, peppery radishes, crumbled salty feta cheese, lots of chopped fresh chives (one of my few personally grown "crops"), extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice and brown rice vinegar.  
The day before the lunch I had been in Albany at Honest Weight, the great food co-op, where I picked up a container of goat's milk yogurt from R&G Cheesmakers, Cohoes, NY (no website). 
R & G makes exquisite goat's milk cheeses and their yogurt is exceptional.  Michael Harris of Cheese! (Hudson Farmer's Market) warned me not to expect a loose yogurt - or even a Greek-style yogurt - that this was was more like a fresh chevre cheese.  I planned accordingly and decided to treat it as if it were  labane, the Middle Eastern-style yogurt cheese.  Labane is usually served spread on a plate covered with fruity olive oil and possibly, a sprinkle of za'atar - a spice and sesame seed mix - as an appetizer or meze together with assorted salads and plenty of warm pita bread to scoop up all the offerings.  I served it with a warm Loaf baguette.

Dessert had to be something with strawberries.  While there are varieties of strawberries that will last for almost the whole summer, the kind I've been buying for the past few weeks are just about finished.
I sliced the berries and macerated them with fresh lemon juice, rapadura sugar - unrefined and unbleached organic sugar from Brazil, and vincotto - the cooked must of Malvasia grapes- which gives anything it's added to deep flavor.   Honest Weight sells vincotto and so does Buon Italia (they do mail order).  I had every intention of making cornmeal-pecan shortcakes but never seemed to get there.  I called my friends who were out shopping somewhere on Warren Street and asked them to please go directly to the farmer's market and get a loaf of Loaf's other-worldly cinnamon  bread.
As long as Rachel continues to make the buttery loaf with a generous whirlpool of cinnamon and a crackling maple-glazed top, I may never make shortcakes again.   Here's what I did; cut 3/4-inch slices of the bread, toasted them and placed each piece on a plate.  The strawberries and a bowl of whipped cream were served separately.  Everyone assembled their own dessert.  It was fragrant, tart, sweet, spicy, crispy and creamy.  Need anything else for dessert?

I bought a few extra quarts of strawberries for the freezer to be pulled and defrosted in a time of emergency.   Hull the berries then lay out, single file, on a parchment paper-covered baking sheet.  Freeze, then store the frozen berries in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag.   To defrost do the whole thing in reverse - lay the frozen berries on a baking sheet, thaw and you will have perfect berries to use as you like.  Use semi-thawed berries in a smoothie.

If you find yourself in downtown NYC (not all the way down) and are desperate for sweet refreshment
go here on the east side:

Zucker is a small east village bakery with all the charm of a coffee house in central Vienna.  Their cold brewed Stumptown coffee consumed with  alfajores ( Argentine sandwich cookies filled with dulce de leche then rolled in coconut) is the pause that refreshes.  No doubt.

L'Arte del Gelato on the west side, in the Chelsea Market serves the real thing.  Real Italian gelato - ice cream with about 1/4 of the butterfat as found in American ice cream.   My benchmark gelato is straciatella - literally "a little rag" - it is plain (not vanilla) white, gelato with chocolate "rags" swirled through.  L'Arte del Gelato's straciatella  passes the test, it tastes like Italy.  All the other flavors do too. 

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