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Asparagus sings of spring, offering a fresh first bite of what’s to come

Asparagus sings of spring.

Slim and elegant, tender and verdant, the spears symbolize the season, declaring, with a sigh of relief, it’s here. After a long, dark and cold winter, we’ve arrived at warmer weather – or, at least, the promise of it – and all that it brings.

Weekends at the lake are right around the corner. So are Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the long Memorial Day weekend, although not in that order. With those holidays and leisurely light-filled afternoons come picnics and patio dining, grilling and dining al fresco.

Asparagus offers a fresh first bite of what’s to come. Quick-growing and perennial, it’s among the season’s earliest crops and is – quite possibly – spring’s quintessential vegetable.

The season is short-lived. Harvest lasts up to 10 weeks, depending on the weather and the age of the plants.

Look for stalks that are 6 to 8 inches long. Taller and thicker spears tend to be less tender, more meaty. The thin ones are generally more tender, more sweet.

Look, also, for firm, unblemished stalks with compact heads. Avoid split ends, which could indicate the spears aren’t the freshest.

Of course, you could rush out and buy spears that have traveled thousands of miles from Peru and Mexico. Or, you could wait just a little longer – until right about now – for locally grown asparagus.

Most Washington-grown asparagus comes from the Yakima Valley and Columbia Basin. It’s best just-cut at farmers markets throughout the region.

When it first arrives on the scene, keep it simple. Enjoy the stalks by grilling or roasting them with a little lemon, olive oil, rosemary, garlic, sea salt and pepper – or perhaps, a simple but flavorful marinade. Get saucy.

“I think there is nothing better with asparagus than romesco,” said chef David Blaine, owner of Central Food in Kendall Yards, who was willing to share his recipe.

Get more creative as asparagus season persists, tossing chopped asparagus into a farro or potato salad or creamy risotto, mixing it in to a pasta dish, or adding it to a quiche. The spears can add a touch of spring to a classic eggs Benedict, too.

Executive chef Ian Wingate at the Davenport Grand Hotel in downtown Spokane likes to pair them with nettles, another early bird, and tuck them into an omelet.

And Molly Patrick, executive chef at the Blackbird Tavern and Kitchen and Manito Tap House, shaves the stalks for a salad that’s on the menu now at the Blackbird.

The greens rest on a bed of soft, herbed cream cheese and are balanced by the smokiness of bacon vinaigrette, tangy sharpness of white cheddar and nuttiness of sunflower seeds. Sweet pea shoots temper the grassy bite of corn shoots from farmer Dan Sproule of Full Bushel Farm in Medical Lake.

“It’s modeled after your grandma’s pea salad,” she said. “It’s super green. But it looks great. It’s really light and bright and earthy, like spring.”

Pea and Shaved Asparagus Salad

From executive chef Molly Patrick of the Blackbird and Manito Tap House

For the herbed cream cheese:

1 pound soft goat cheese

1/2 pound cream cheese

1/4 cup milk

1/4 bunch of parsley, chopped

1 sprig rosemary, chopped

1 sprig dill, chopped

1/2 clove garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon smoked salt

1/4 shallot, minced

Whip everything together until light and fluffy.

Yield: 4 cups

For the greens:

Pea shoots, as desired

Corn shoots, as desired (optional)

Sugar peas, as desired

Shaved asparagus, as desired

White cheddar, shaved or crumbles

Sunflower seeds, to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well.

Note: For each serving, plan for 4 ounces of pea shoots, 5 ounces of corn shoots, 5 ounces of sugar peas, 1 ounce shaved asparagus, 1.5 ounces crumbled white cheddar and 1/4 ounce sunflower seeds.

For the bacon vinaigrette:

4 pieces bacon, cooked

1/4 cup apple vinegar

2 tablespoons bacon curing spice (See note)

1 tablespoon garlic

2 tablespoon honey

1/4 cup onion

2 cups canola oil

Puree all ingredients through until smooth, adding oil in a slow and steady stream until emulsified.

Yield: about 2 1/2 cups

Note: Use your favorite or try the recipe below.

For the bacon curing spice:

2 cups brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup ground juniper berries

1 1/2 cups kosher salt

3 tablespoons ground sage

1/4 cup coarse ground pepper

Combine everything well.

Yield: about 5 cups

For the optional crumbled “earth” garnish

2 cups candied pistachios

6 brioche buns, dehydrated

1-2 cups maltodextrin

1 tablespoon dehydrated black olive

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt, to taste

Add pistachios and brioche in a blender. When ground into fine crumbs, transfer into a bowl. Add maltodextrin and dehydrated black olive, and mix thoroughly, then add olive oil and incorporate well. Mixture should resemble and feel like soil. Taste, and add salt if needed.

Assemble the salad: Spoon herbed cream cheese onto plate or board, and smear with the backside of a spoon. Place greens atop cream cheese. Dress with bacon vinaigrette. Spoon a little “earth” onto the side, if using, and serve.

Asparagus and Nettle Omelet

From executive chef Ian Wingate of the Davenport Grand Hotel in Spokane

1/4 cup chopped asparagus

1/4 cup nettles (pick the leaves and boil for 2-3 minutes or until wilted)

2 tablespoons butter, divided

2 eggs

1 tablespoon milk or water

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon Boursin cheese

For the filling: quickly sauté asparagus and nettles in small sauté pan with 1 tablespoon of butter.

For the eggs: Crack eggs into a small bowl, with a fork whisk in milk or water, salt, pepper and set aside

Heat a 6-inch omelet pan over high heat until it becomes hot, about 30 seconds, add remaining butter and make sure it completely melted and coats the entire bottom of the pan.

Pour in egg mixture and tilt the pan back and forth so entire pan is covered with egg. Let eggs firm up. After about 10 seconds, peel the edges of the omelet from the pan allowing the rest of the liquid to fill the space at the edge of the pan.

Continue to cook for about a minute more, and while the egg is still slightly runny in the middle add your filling and cheese to the center of the omelet.

Tilt the pan to one side, use a spatula to fold over one third of the omelet toward the center. Gently shake the omelet to the edge of the pan.

Holding the pan over a plate gently shake the pan rolling the omelet over on to the plate allowing it to fold itself onto the plate.

Yield: 1 serving

Asparagus with Romesco Sauce

From chef David Blaine, owner of Central Food in Kendall Yards

Use this sauce to top asparagus. Cook 1 pound of asparagus as desired. “Grilled is the best way with the romesco,” Blaine said. “But, honestly, you can’t go wrong here.”

Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed, for frying and for consistency

4 cloves garlic

1 cup dried bread cubes

1/3 cups roasted almonds

1 Fresno, Thai or Serrano chili pepper, or 1/2 jalapeño, halved and deseeded

2 roasted red bell peppers

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons tomato puree

1 teaspoon saffron soaked in 1 tablespoon water

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon ground white pepper

Fry garlic, bread, chili and almonds in olive oil, then strain. Put all ingredients in a food processor and buzz until smooth. Add extra-virgin olive oil until mixture reaches proper consistency. Serve with grilled asparagus.

New Potato and Asparagus Salad

From “Gold’n Delicious: Recipes Hand-picked from the Great Northwest,” Junior League of Spokane, 1995

2 pounds (about 5 medium) new potatoes, halved lengthwise

1 pound asparagus, trimmed

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons chives, snipped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Add potatoes to a large pot of water, bring to a boil and cook until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, cool slightly and cut into wedges.

Add asparagus to a large pot of boiling water and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water. Cut asparagus into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Toss potatoes and asparagus together in a large bowl.

Combine mustard and lemon juice in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in oil. Pour over salad. Add chives, salt and pepper and toss to coat. Serve at room temperature.

Yield: 4 servings

Marinated Asparagus

From “Still Gold’n: Celebrating Spokane One Meal at a Time,” Junior League of Spokane, 2007

For the asparagus

1 pound asparagus, trimmed

2 tablespoons water

For the marinade

2 tablespoons shallots, finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons spicy Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons raspberry wine vinegar

6 tablespoons olive oil

Raspberries or edible fresh flowers

For the asparagus: Place asparagus and water in a large seal-able plastic bag and seal partially, leaving some room for steam to escape. Microwave on medium for 3-4 minutes or until the asparagus spears are bright green and tender-crisp; drain.

For the marinade: blend the shallots, salt, pepper, sugar and mustard in a small bowl. Add the vinegar and mix well. Add the olive oil slowly in a steady stream, whisking constantly until the marinade is thick and creamy.

Pour the marinade into the bag with the asparagus. Seal the bag. Marinate in the refrigerator for 4 hours to overnight. Remove the bag and place on a platter.

To serve, garnish with raspberries or edible fresh flowers.

Yield: 4-6 servings