Asparagus. It’s a funny word, all sharp angles and push, as are the spears that break through the ground crust at parade ground attention. The only asparagus encountered when I was growing up came from flavor-annihilating cans that produced either soggy, wrinkled stalks of the darkest green or Cream of Asparagus soup. Neither was tempting. Occasionally I read of the glories of asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, touted as a French luxury. The 1950s America I knew was not a threat to French culinary dominance. What little I knew and how wonderfully it all changed. Lucky for me not too many years went by before a friend insisted that I try fresh, steamed asparagus dusted with Parmesan cheese. Is there anyone as devout as a convert?
The Egyptians domesticated asparagus and then went so far as to decorate their hieroglyphics with it. Its cultivation spread through Greece and Italy where it was prized by Roman emperors to the extent that they maintained a fleet of special ships to transport asparagus from around the Mediterranean to Rome. A byproduct of their quest for world domination, Romans planted asparagus across Europe all the way to Britain. The world’s oldest cookbook, the Roman Apicius, contains recipes for the crowned stalk member of the prolific lily family. It was brought to America in the 19th century by a Dutch farmer. Good thing.
The arrival of spring brings asparagus’ availability in local markets. There are three colors to choose from, the dominant green, the expensive and labor intensive white and, recently, the purple. The white stalks, as they emerge from the ground, are continuously covered with dirt or mulch to keep the sun from triggering the greening process. Some say the white is less bitter than the green, though others think it takes mildness to an unjustifiable extreme, especially given the extra effort and expense. The purple is exotic, pretty and as good as the green. It can make a plate very dramatic indeed. Though one could wonder exactly why are we tinkering with perfection.
Honestly, how often does a delicious, low calorie, no fat, no cholesterol treat that is high in vitamin C, antioxidants, folate and potassium appear on the table’s horizon? Our website has many asparagus recipes including Chicken with Asparagus, Zucchini and Basmati Rice, Farrotto with Ramps, Fiddlehead Ferns and Asparagus and Asparagus, Bok Choy and Rice Salad. For today we are offering Asparagus, Lemon and Goat Cheese Pasta. However, one should never forget that asparagus quickly steamed, drizzled with lemon juice is deliciously hard to beat.
“I’m just a dandelion,” sang the Cowardly Lion, though he was neither an edible bitter green nor, when push came to shove, cowardly. For years I had operated on the misinformation that dandelions were the same as arugula. They do bear some resemblance to one another. Both are edible and have a slightly bitter, peppery taste. However, folklore notwithstanding, they do not even belong to the same family. Let’s keep dandelions for wishing on and more tender arugula to spice up our dishes.
Arugula, watercress and mustard greens are all far-flung members of the mustard family and are thought to have originated throughout Western and Central Asia and even up into the Indian Himalayas. Sometimes called rocket, it is common around the Mediterranean from Morocco and Portugal to Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Americans have offered it a home and it has happily taken root here as well.
Early and modern Italians have a well-developed taste for arugula for its sharp, zesty flavor. It has a long-established following especially in France. Italy and France have long been touted for their world class cuisines, both with a true appreciation of the concept of green salad. It’s a safe bet that they’re on to something here. An old Roman saying alleges that it takes four people to make a salad:
A wise one to season it;
A miser to measure the vinegar;
A spendthrift to measure the oil; and
A lunatic to toss it.
With such wisdom at their beck and call, one could wonder how the Roman Empire fell. Maybe they stopped eating their greens. All of these greens are at their biting best before they’ve become world weary. Then again, who isn’t?
Though the obvious first choice for using spring greens is in a salad, the versatility of arugula knows few boundaries. As with so many bright young greens a light hand is always a plus. The market’s website provides many recipes. Take a browse through it for some fresh ideas http://www.litchfieldfarmersmarket.org/. The arugula options include Arugula Strawberry and Feta Salad with Ginger Berry Dressing, Arugula Risotto and Arugula,Tomatoes, and Sweet Ricotta. Today we are offering Capellini with Arugula. Use one of these bright ways to bring spring to the table.
Leave it to the Italians to be able to make an elegant dish out of corn meal mush. And leave it to the Americas, to provide the raw goods to make it possible. Polenta and mush are made from corn which is native to North and Central Americas. Inexplicably, its home continents are the places where polenta is least known. Now that’s something that needs fixing.
Fortunately, we seem to be in a crucible of food evolution where all manner of alimentary staples and produce are being viewed with new thoughts to preparation and consumption. Some of this new experimentation comes out of our new awareness of the dietary impact of gluten, some are a by-product of simply wanting to live and eat in a healthy, world-sustaining manner and some are driven by the desire to become vegetarian or vegan. To make less of a negative impact on the earth is surely an admirable goal. When it can be combined with a delicious meal, it is a seductive objective.
Like its cousins rice, potatoes, wheat and corn, grits and hominy, polenta is viable for breakfast, lunch, snacks, appetizers, dinner and even dessert. Gluten-free polenta can produce porridge and pancakes alike. It may be molded and baked, roasted, grilled, and baked into sweet cakes and confectionaries. It stands as a main dish or a side dish. Polenta may be spiced up in a robustly satisfying meal or soothed down as mild and comforting as a nursery food.
Chefs push more envelopes than those concerning flavor. They have made great inroads in the once long-cooking polenta process and reduced the required time and attention. Many of us shy away from anything classified as “instant”. A reaction to the less successful early efforts of the previous century for many staples. Techniques and processes are constantly honed and today there are instant polentas that produce beautifully creamy dishes. Like pasta, rice and couscous, polenta is a tasty, nourishing way to convey a cornucopia of vegetables to the mouth.
To our shame, we have no previous recipes on our website for polenta, which we will endeavor to rectify. Hopefully future columns will include it. We will investigate recipes for polenta pancakes, French toast, Orange Polenta Cake, the one dish tomato, and basil polenta and certainly grilled polenta drizzled with a fresh tomato sauce. We will start with today’s offering: Polenta with Mushroom Stew.