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Friday, May 8, 2015

Aprons and Asparagus

(Originally published in The News Review on April 7, 2015.)

I grew up believing that “how you dress affects how you act and how you act affects everything.” For church, I put on my “Sunday best” because it helps me feel reverent. In the gym, I wear workout clothes; they make me feel strong. On date night I slip into high heels; they make me feel glamorous. And when I step into the kitchen, I tie on an apron; it says to my mind “Let's get cooking” and I feel like a chef.

From flirty to functional, aprons come in all shapes and patterns for both men and women. The purpose, of course, is to shield one's clothes from the splashes and splatters and spills all cooks contend with. Marcy Goldman of BetterBaking.com says cooking without an apron is akin to driving without a seat belt and I agree. Why risk it? Besides the protection it offers, an apron comes in handy when two hands aren't enough. How many times have I run out to the garden to snip a few herbs and returned with an apron full of tomatoes or beans or cucumbers!

My stash of aprons is fairly small. I have a few souvenirs: a milk chocolate-colored Ghirardelli apron, a bright red Pike Place Market apron, a black and orange OSU extension apron (though I'm officially a duck), a lacy half apron (aka hostess apron) my in-laws brought back from a trip to Europe. Yet, my ideal apron is plain white and practical, one I can bleach if necessary to keep it fresh-looking. I like a slender pocket to hold a thermometer and a big pocket to hold my smartphone/timer. (My favorite kitchen timer is a free phone app called Nag. It allows me to set and label eight different timers at once.) I need my apron strings long enough to crisscross behind my back and tie around my waist in front so I can loop a dishtowel through for drying my hands.

Dressing the part won't turn me into a chef without top-notch ingredients. Farmers markets are moving back outdoors and the produce stalls are a sea of green. The cabbage, kale, brassicas and root vegetables we've enjoyed all winter are making way for lettuce, chives, green onions, garlic scapes and asparagus. Snow peas, snap peas and shelling peas aren't far off.

I adore asparagus and eagerly anticipate its arrival each spring. It's usually sold in one pound bundles, often a mix of thick and thin spears. Pencil-thin spears are so tender they can be added raw to salads or tossed into a quick stir-fry. Larger spears are perfect for roasting with olive oil or steaming then sautéing in garlic butter. Any size works well for a creamy asparagus soup.

If your kitchen confidence needs a boost, maybe it's time to “dress for success” with a new apron. Pick a style that makes you smile, gather up some local ingredients and get cooking.

Creamy asparagus soup gets a little zing from white balsamic vinegar.
Cream of Asparagus Soup

Asparagus, garlic stalks and chives are some of the first spring greens to appear at farmers markets. All three go into this creamy soup that can be served warm or chilled. I use Trader Joe's White Balsamic Vinegar. If don't have any, try white wine vinegar or sherry vinegar or a splash of fresh lemon juice.

2 tablespoons butter
1 rounded cup sliced garlic stalks (I used it all the way up to the dark green part) or one large onion and 1 clove of garlic, diced
2 cups chicken stock
1 pound (as purchased) asparagus, woody ends trimmed, sliced into 1-inch pieces
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
fresh chives for garnish

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the sliced garlic (and/or onion) and cook until softened. Add the broth, asparagus and seasonings, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 8 to 10 minutes, until asparagus is tender. Add the milk. I like to puree it right in the pot using a hand blender, but you can also do it in batches in a regular blender. Stir in the cream. Add additional salt, if needed. Just before serving stir in the vinegar. Garnish each bowlful with freshly snipped chives.

Makes 5 to 6 cups of soup.


Roasted asparagus with coarse sea salt.
Roasted Asparagus

Simple and so very good.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Rinse the asparagus and snap off the woody ends. I do this by holding each spear by the cut end and a few inches up the stalk. Bend gently and the spear will break where the woody part starts.
Arrange the asparagus in a single layer in a very shallow baking pan (a half-sheet pan or a cookie sheet with sides). Drizzle with olive oil then toss with your fingers to coat the spears evenly. Sprinkle with a bit of coarse sea salt.
Place in the oven and bake for 5 to 8 minutes, depending on how thick the asparagus is. Check with a cake tester or fork. You want it tender-crisp. Do not overbake or it will turn mushy.

Serve immediately. Any leftovers make a great addition to an omelet or frittata.

Steamed Asparagus Sautéed in Garlic Butter
 
If your steamer basket is not large enough to lay the asparagus in, try improvising with a round cooling rack or trivet set in a skillet you can cover.

Rinse the asparagus and trim the woody ends. Place the spears in a steamer set over (not in) hot water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and steam just until tender-crisp. This will only take a few minutes, depending on how thick the spears are.

Meanwhile, begin melting some butter in a frying pan over low heat. When the asparagus is ready, transfer it to the frying pan and add a finely minced or pressed clove of garlic. Increase heat to medium and sauté two or three minutes, just until spears are tender. Do not over cook. Sprinkle with sea salt and serve immediately.

Do ahead tip: After steaming just until tender-crisp, plunge the asparagus into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking, drain well and store in the refrigerator for several days. When you want to serve it, proceed with sautéing instructions. You can have fresh vegetables on the table in minutes with this method.

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