Seasonal Spotlight: Asparagus Part 2

As much as I love Asparagus, it is not something that I have ever really considered growing. This Spring, however, an old acquaintance from college posted some pictures of a few beautiful spears of asparagus that he had grown, mentioning in the post that he had a bumper crop after two years of careful tending. He grew them from seed and watered them persistently at first but, once established, they don’t really need much watering. They require dedicated beds because they develop a pretty extensive root systems and they need well drained soil, so he tilled sand into the beds. The whole process seems pretty intense but it sounds like, if you are willing to put some elbow grease into it, you can get a lot of bang for your buck. With 35 mature plants, he said that he is able to harvest about 14 spears 1-2 times per week. Wow! Having recently spent $23 on asparagus, I found that pretty appealing. 

While I may not be starting asparagus production this year, I can still enjoy the season’s bounty by cooking with it in a variety of ways. So far on the blog I have discussed the salty, saucy way:

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But there are also more subtle treatments that let the asparagus’ sweetness shine through even more. The other weekend, I made an asparagus soup. The recipe is found in Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson and was super simple and quick (30 min or less). It was almost a little too simple in my opinion so I gussied it up with lemon juice, which really complimented the brightness of the asparagus, and some goat cheese which, swirled into the soup to finish, added a nice savory note. It is a great soup for spring/summer because it is amazing both hot and cold and keeps for several days, so you can make it ahead and have a very elegant lunch without trying too hard.

Asparagus Soup, from Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories

Serves: 4 

INGREDIENTS:
1/2 cup butter
4 small leeks, white parts only, trimmed and chopped
3 cups water
1 potato, peeled and chopped
salt and pepper
1 lb fresh asparagus, peeled and trimmed
1 cup heavy cream

INSTRUCTIONS:
Melt butter and stew leeks until soft.

Add water and potato and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes.

Chop the asparagus and add to the soup. Boil rapidly for 5 minutes.

Blend Thoroughly and pass through a china cap or medium/fine sieve.

Add cream and check seasoning.

Serve Hot or cold.

Source: Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson, 1994 (p. 13)

To close out my Asparagus triad, I made a lovely almost pasta salad with orzo, just steamed asparagus, olives, sliced bell pepper, Feta, and a lemony dressing. Courtesy of our friends at PCC, this was a perfect accompaniment to our Sunday Roast chicken.

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Seasonal Spotlight: Asparagus Part 1

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Photo by Miti on Unsplash

Without restaurants being open declaring their seasonal specials and leisurely grocery store trips, it’s easy to forget the culinary seasonality that is Spring’s gift. Morel mushrooms with their craggy domes and earthy aroma, crisp sweet peas, and of course asparagus. 

Out of season asparagus is an expensive and rather dingy vegetable in my opinion. In-season, locally grown asparagus, however, is slightly less expensive but miles above the more commercially produced, year-round stuff. It is sweet and bright, tender and crisp. It is great simply steamed or quickly broiled with a squeeze of lemon and some flaky sea salt to finish. It is delicious chopped up in some fluffy scrambled eggs or in a delicate soup. 

Last week’s PCC newsletter naturally featured asparagus and coincided nicely with a grocery delivery order I was putting together. I bit the bullet and ordered 2 pounds and planned out my menu. I would start on Saturday with a preparation featured in one of my favorite cookbooks, Roast Chicken and Other Stories and roll into Sunday afternoon with an asparagus soup from the same book and then, as an accompaniment to our Sunday roast chicken dinner, a bright asparagus and orzo dish from the aforementioned PCC newsletter.

The asparagus arrived…$23 worth, closer to three lbs, but I won’t complain. Then Saturday came and we had a late lunch so I planned for a late light dinner. I browsed the recipe a bit and mentally ran through the steps. It was a bit fussy, as this particular cookbook can be, but I wasn’t too worried. 

The recipe is called Delices D’Argenteuil. According to the cookbook, the Argenteuil region which is outside of Paris is famous for its asparagus. This is a pancake dish that combines the classic flavors of egg, asparagus and ham. The author calls them “pancakes” but it is essentially crepes with asparagus and prosciutto rolled up inside them. And because it is French, covered in hollandaise. Simple enough I thought to myself. Mmmm, yeah, not really.

  1. Pro Tip: When working with milk and eggs and melted butter, make sure that the milk and eggs are close to room temp before you add in the melted butter. If not, the butter will quickly solidify and thwart you as you try to pass your batter through the fine sieve required by the recipe.
  2. It has been an age since I made crepes so it took some doing to get 6 decent ones.
  3. One does not just whip up a hollandaise, as the book casually declares at one point, unless one is a chef or makes it frequently and in that case, one is probably not as healthy as one would hope to be.

I got all my little crepe and asparagus/prosciutto rolls all ready and in the oven, and  then conscripted Andrew who has a much better grasp of the whole emulsified sauces thing than I. I halved the hollandaise recipe because one stick of butter per person seemed a little wrong, especially as it was nearing midnight. We biffed the first attempt but luckily before we added the butter. The second round took nicely and we soon had a beautiful silky sauce. That was spooned over the rolls and broiled so the sauce just melted in and the resulting dish was both sweet (without any added sugar) and savory, from the prosciutto, and fresh with a nice crunch, courtesy of the asparagus. Served with a sparkling Rose cava just before midnight, totally worth the wait.

We went to bed satisfied and even a little triumphant, having done this seasonal treat justice. Next stop, Asparagus soup!

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Photo by Oklahoma Academy Country Store on Unsplash

 

Mocktails for Lazy People

It’s mid-February and many people may be welcoming this second month of the calendar year for one reason. Hint: It’s not Valentine’s Day (ugh) or the lovely weather (…rain). It’s because Dry January is now in the rear-view. We can all pat ourselves on our backs and feel accomplished that we went one whole month without the sauce. I mean, given the state of the world these days, it feels especially meaningful. I participated in Dry January and felt so good during this time that I decided to continue it on until…whenever. Some days are easier than others and when I think about all the wine in our cellar, liquor in the bar and the wine club we are still members of, I wonder, is it a greater crime to let good alcohol linger or to give my liver a bit of a challenge?

Perhaps I will come to a sort of middle ground at some point. Maybe that’s what getting old is – a meeting of two extremes at a place of mediocrity. Oh joy.

It many ways, being sober and keeping things interesting in the drinks department is more difficult than not. Previously, when I wanted something tasty to drink, I would open a bottle of nice wine, mix an extra dirty martini, or pour an interesting amaro. Googling “Mocktails” reveals a plethora of shrubs, tinctures, exotic juices and purees that one can utilize to concoct delicious libations that tickle your taste buds and do everything that a cocktail does, except lubricate social situations and ruin mornings. I am at my core a Path of Least Resistance person though, and thinking ahead enough to make a shrub or source mango puree is just not really a priority for me right now. So, in the last month, I have discovered some easy mocktail solutions that satisfy me and involve little more than pouring two liquids into a glass and maybe squeezing some citrus if I am feeling motivated.

The Lazy Ginger: Literally just ginger ale or beer and a squeeze of lime 
Make it Fancy:
Add a dash of Angostura Bitters and/or a sprig of mint

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Photo by Morton Xiong on Unsplash

The Tardy Tart: Blood Orange San Pellegrino and Unsweetened cranberry juice
Make it Fancy: Add a dash of Orange Bitters

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Photo by Sarah-Gualtieri on Unsplash

The Creamsicle: Orange Juice and Vanilla Dry Soda
Make it Fancy: Add a float of unsweetened cranberry juice

The Pickled Ginger: A replacement for my beloved dirty martini – A shot of pickle juice 🙂
Make it Fancy: Serve with a cornichon/cocktail onion/olive garnish

The Languid Bourgeois: Equal parts Lavender and Vanilla Dry Sodas
Make it Fancy: Bitch, a 4-pack of this stuff is like $8. It ALREADY fancy!

I am sure you can see a pattern start to emerge, so here are a few rules that you can endlessly riff on.

  • Bitters added to anything, even plain fizzy water makes it fancy
  • Mix sweeter sodas with unsweetened juices for a more interesting and balanced flavor profile.
  • Combine fruit juice with soda and feel healthier
  • Dry Sodas, which have very little sugar comparatively, are basically mocktails in bottle form. Nothing else needed really.
  • You can add pretty much any clear liquor like vodka or light rum to these to make them boozy.
  • La Croix has no place here because that shit is the most boring stuff I’ve tasted and if I’m not drinking booze, I’m not going to torture myself with a memory of a lime.

Cheers, friends!

 

 

 

 

Opa! (Boomer): A Dinner Party Reimagined

They say that the dinner party is dead. Something else that Millennials have killed along with golf and casual dining establishments. As a HungryGinger, I will surely not shed a tear when and if places like TGI Fridays and Outback Steakhouse go under, but I take exception to the idea that the dinner party will share their fate. In fact, I believe that, unlike many relics of our baby boomer parent’s lives, the dinner party is adapting to become a new and possibly better expression of itself. Alison Roman is throwing casual get-togethers in her Brooklyn apartment and Instagramming the shit out of it. Hell, she even wrote an entire cookbook around the idea. I’m sold. 

The dinner party does not have to be a three course affair beginning with bruschetta and ending with Baked Alaska (though it certainly could – there are no rules!). It can be a series of small plates, snacks and dips with some fun veggies – watermelon radish anyone? Or it can be a themed potluck where everyone also brings a bottle of wine (and takes a Lyft home). As I have negotiated my way to my mid thirties, the dinner party has become more and more appealing. I long for the structure of a sitdown gathering with friends, but don’t necessarily need to be burdened with the responsibility for several courses. I’m paying into social security that will be bankrupt when I am old, so I should be able to do damn well what I please when it comes to dinner. It is this feeling (and several drunken non-dinner party nights with friends) that gave rise to the first annual Greek Solstice Cook-a-thon.

At times of merriment, a friend (who is Greek) and I, would wax poetic about Greek food. We would discuss the finer points of Avgolemono soup (when IS the best time to add the egg enrichment?) and baklava (so. many. layers.) and tell ourselves that sometime soon, we would have a Greek themed dinner party and he would teach me and our friends his ya-ya’s secrets. Finally, this year, around about the Summer Solstice, we followed through. There were eight people in total which is enough people for a lively gathering but not so many that the party could potentially separate into groups. 

 

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About a week out, the Greek friend (Stevie) posted some classic recipes that he was thinking of making and we divided the recipes for the mains between the two of us. Other attendees took on appetizers and dessert (which could be made ahead of time) and we picked a dish that everyone could help make the day of – Spanakopita!

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We did a lot of pre-prep so that when we all got together, we weren’t stuck in the kitchen instead of socializing. I also did a signature cocktail that could be mixed ahead of time so that we had something tasty to drink while we cooked.

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The Grapevine:
4 cups white grapejuice
1 cup vodka
¼ cup lemon juice
2 tsp Grenadine
*Thanks NYT Cooking Community Facebook Group for the recipe!**

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And a party isn’t a party without some appetizers to go with the drinks (we don’t want to be completely smashed for the meal). My friend Louisa, fellow blogger and foodaphile made a delicious garlic dip made with potatoes and homemade pita chips.

 

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Once everyone arrived, we pulled the thawed phyllo dough out from the fridge along with the spanakopita filling I had made the night before (in an 11pm frenzy). Stevie showed us how much filling to use (less than you would think) and how to fold and seal the tiny packages of deliciousness. We took turns filling and folding and filling and folding. Everyone did a round and all improved so that by the end, we were practically pros. Yaya would have been proud! 

 

Then into the oven they went. Additional dishes including chicken rolls, Keftethes or Greek Meatballs, Green bean casserole and baked fish with raisins. And of course a greek salad with crisp cucumbers, olives, feta and tomato. This was a true feast and by the time we got to the baklava (purchased from a local Greek establishment…we aren’t masochists), we were stuffed and everyone got some leftovers to take home. Next time, I will definitely provide To Go containers for everyone so that we don’t have to play tupperware roulette.

 

Overall the experience was great because it was more participatory than a traditional dinner party. I felt less like I was putting on a show (with all the attendant stress) and more like we were a group of merry honorary Greeks – a beautiful amalgamation of old world tradition and modern collaborative spirit. What is sweeter than that?

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THIS

Anatomy of a Cuban Sandwich

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During the post holiday malaise of January and February, it’s nice to have something to look forward to, a fun trip, a staycation, a cooking project that results in a fun and delicious meal. During the month of January, I’m usually a little burnt out from holiday excess and in the midst of a yoga-fueled health kick. That doesn’t mean there isn’t time for a little treat though! That’s why, when Sosios in the Market left me a message saying they had Seville Oranges in stock, five precious cases that were sure to go quickly, a plan involving the best pressed sandwich there is began to take shape.

The origin of the Cuban sandwich isn’t necessarily “shrouded in mystery” but it is a bit murky. The sandwiches were popular with workers in Cuba’s sugar mills where entrepreneurial folk would set up restaurants inside the mills and sell them to workers on their lunch breaks. A Cuban type sandwich called a “sandwich mixto” was common in cafeterias and restaurant menus in Cuba by the 1930s and there were mentions of the same in Tampa during this time as well. The cigar industry in Florida had shifted to Tampa in the late 1800s and tens of thousands of Cuban workers moved there over the next 30 or so years, so some believe that these old mixtos became the Cuban sandwich as we know it today. Miami, drawing a large influx of Cubans after Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959, also claims a stake in the Cuban sandwich game and by the 1960s, the Cuban was common among the expat community there as well.

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There are a few slight variations to the Cuban – some use a salty Serrano in place of a sweeter ham and others add an olive salad similar to a tapenade to the mix. The building blocks, however, are always the same: pork, ham, swiss, pickles and Cuban style bread. Now what is Cuban style bread exactly? Its unique properties make it ideal for pressing because it develops a uniform crunch on the outside with a soft inside breadiness that smooshes down to a perfect bread to filling ratio,  while remaining sturdy and actually quite portable. No messy filling falling out situation here!

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Besides the Cuban bread, the other unique ingredient in this delicious sandwich is the Seville or sour orange. Seville oranges are prized worldwide for traditional English Bitter Orange Marmalade as well as the Mojo Criollo marinade for our Cuban sandwich pork. Here in Seattle, the only place I have found them is the aforementioned Sosio’s in Pike Place Market and only for a couple weeks in January/February. This is why I am on their call list and so, a couple Saturdays ago, we headed down to the market to pick up our precious bag of citrus. I always love visiting the stalls in the market because the purveyors are so passionate about produce. They wax poetic about asparagus and all but sing sonnets about pears. And they love food nerding it up with regulars and telling tall tales to tourists. So fun!

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Citrus acquired, we called up El Diablo Coffee Co, a Cuban inspired cafe on Queen Anne and the only place in Seattle where we have been able to find legit Cuban bread for purchase. Given enough notice, they are happy to order 3-10 extra loaves for us. When we first started doing this, they made the bread in house but after some turnover, they started sourcing it from Miami. Now I think they are baking it in house again and it is just as amazing as ever!

If you are going to do it all in one go, set aside a full day for pork roasting for the Cubans, and if you are a prepared type of person, make the mojo the night before to give that shoulder a good long time in the marinade. In a pinch 2-3 hours in the mojo is fine but on top of that, you will be looking at 3-5 hours roasting time. All that Seville juice, garlic, oregano and porky goodness will make your house smell amazing!

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Since most of the time on this is hands off, you will have plenty of time to whip up a couple pitchers of mojitos and relax. About at hour before go time, take your ham and Swiss out of the fridge to come to room temp. Then, when you are ready to griddle, smear some of the porky mojo onto the bottom slice, top with pickles, then sliced pork, ham and Swiss, a swipe of yellow mustard on the top bun, onto a buttered griddle and smash  that baby down with a heavy pot, (clean) brick or sandwich press.

And Voila!

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You can find the recipes I used for both the pork and the Cuban sandwiches on my Trello Board HERE and HERE. These Sandwiches are great for a crowd or just a few friends and they make great leftovers! They reheat amazingly in the oven wrapped in foil and are delicious cold, trouncing that sad slice of pizza that you forgot you ordered last night.

Florida isn’t good for much, but thanks to some entrepreneurial expats, you don’t have to leave the lower 48 for an amazing sandwich and, once in a blue moon, the culinary stars align to bring such a wonder to this PNW Hungry Ginger.

 

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