I procured the sweetest little gems of organic strawberries at the Diablo Valley Farmers Market yesterday from Rodriguez Berries out of Watsonville. Perfectly picturesque and they tasted like spring, like love, like candy, like the vision you have in your flavor place memory place in your head good. Yep that good. True season strawberries, not hoop grown with half flavor. Also in hard and strong are local asparagus, favas and green garlic. In my mind one of the holiest of food trinities around and short lived so take advantage while they are local and in our markets.
Long known as a symbol of love and fertility, astrologically governed by Venus closely wound among their tendrils, strawberries are supremely awaited come springtime in the West. Heart shaped, colored in varying shades of pink to red proudly bearing every color of magenta in between, strawberries are representative of love and rebirth, renewal and hope. In South America around 1300 strawberries were used as currency representing life, among other attributes. Romans have long valued strawberries for healing powers reputed to range from gastric ailments to tightening loose teeth. Cherokee mythology romanticizes strawberries as saving their race when the first man and woman quarreled. As she ran away God placed a basket of strawberries in her path tempting her to indulge and as she did her rage turned to love and she returned to her man. Greek mythology firmly places strawberries roots in line with the Goddess Aphrodite whose tears of despair shed by the death of her Adonis fell in little red hearts, strawberries. In the Middle Ages, strawberries were synonymous with temptation and seduction. Chocolate dipped strawberries are one of the most popular selling item come Valentine’s Day second only to the ruby red heart shaped box of chocolates.
Supremely sweet and intoxicatingly fragrant when picked and eaten in season, its no secret that strawberries have long been used as a draw for customers in early spring farmers markets, alluring shoppers as they stroll past fruit laden tables unable to resist the pull of a luscious three pack. Habit forming, when eaten out of the basket, strawberries also have amazing pairing abilities for sweet as well as savory combinations…. Sliced into salads of tender, sweet greens along with local chevre and toasted chopped almonds needing only a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of fruity olive oil this creates a salad rivaling any of the best restaurants offerings. ….. Strawberries macerated in a bit of good balsamic with a dripping of honey spooned over good ice cream could make you swoon and eat a second helping no matter what your brain says. Seduction……Ubiquitous short cake, biscuit style screams for strawberries and sliced fresh figs with fresh orange juice squeezed into the mix to be lavishly garnished with sweetened mascarpone and sprinkled with love to tempt whoever needs tempting.….Grilled strawberries and peaches tossed with lemon oil coated fresh baby arugula showered with toasted prosciutto is a match even Venus could not have dreamed up. Love, temptation and seduction aside, in season, fresh, local strawberries take the cake and all the frosting for being the most anticipated of spring fruits…..except possibly cherries may be a little competition….
After a long winter, as if by vegetal spirit summons, around mid spring, asparagus makes an ethereal appearance amidst winter vegetable leaden tables at farmers markets. Long or short, thin or fat, as with other important items, size does not matter, personal preference only dictates what lands in heavy shopper bags. Tight tips are a must going from purple to green; firmness does matter, with asparagus having most flavor in the points d'amour ("love tips") that were served as a delicacy to Madame de Pompadour.
Most of our asparagus heralds out of the central valley of California. Holding great significance in the San Joaquin River Delta, enough so to have Stockton honored with the location of the Asparagus Festival annually, asparagus also figures heavily in Britain with the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire laying claim to title of largest producer in Eastern Europe with an immense weeklong festival honoring the herbaceous spring flowering perennial there too.
Ancient in origin, the medicinal diuretic asparagus is seen pictured in a 3000 year old Egyptian frieze as well as boasting title of mainstay at the Roman festival of Epicurus being used frozen from the previous season. Effects of consuming asparagus relating to scents of urine have long been noted with Marcel Proust stating in a letter to Benjamin Franklin in 1781 that “asparagus transforms my chamber pot into a flask of perfume.” In A Treatise of all Sorts of Food dated 1702, Louis Lemery says “everybody knows asparagus causes a powerful and disagreeable smell in the urine”. It has been researched well and most scientists believe that it occurs to everyone’s urine but a few are missing an olfactory gene and can’t smell it.
Used as a companion plant to tomatoes, asparagus repels harmful root nematodes that affect tomato plants while tomatoes repel the dreaded asparagus beetle. Having opposing seasons of peak production is yet another sweet convenience of nature.
Commencing asparagus season properly requires celebration on all levels of dining…. For breakfast sauté sliced tips and stalks in butter and green garlic and scramble with eggs and chevre consuming with fresh baguette and champagne….. Lunch requires chilled poached asparagus served with mustard vinaigrette and chopped chives while evening consumption demands…. asparagus is tossed with fruity olive oil, garlic and salt and placed on a hot grill to blister tender skins and be drizzled with balsamic. ….Sauté prawns with sliced cremini, sliced asparagus and garlic splashing with vin blanc and enriching with cream to reduce and lap up….. Dipping steamed tips into a soft poached egg sprinkled with cracked sea salt and feathery puffs of grated Manchego serves intimate midnight soirees unforgettably well.
Ancient and exotic, coveted tender, baby pods and big, fat, luscious adults, fava beans are an amazing culinary treat with a short season. Often planted as soil amendment adding nitrogen in infancy and carbon at the end cycle, fava’s are also an incredibly sexy treat to slowly devour. Clip ends off whole baby beans, pod and all, lube up with olive oil and season with salt placing on hot grills. The heat crisps up outer shells while steaming inside pods. In the farmers markets for a few more weeks, their season coincides with green garlic and asparagus creating the spring trilogy so popular among foodies everywhere once exposed. Rack up brownie points for time and energy displayed retrieving those two sumptuous green buds under lush padding. Pop beans from pods blanching a few minutes then ice bath quickly. Slip beans out of yet another shield pondering opportunities. Sautéed simply in olive oil and green garlic is a favorite first of the season prep. Mashed with olive oil, green garlic, lemon and salt and spread on toast, celery or your body, can be breathtaking. Toss tiny halves into salads combining greens, tangy apricots, chevre and olive oil. Eating seasonally has benefits.
Spring Asparagus Soup w/ Parmesan Toast
2 pounds fresh asparagus, chopped
2 green garlic, cleaned and sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups stock
½ cup cream
1 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
8 to 12 baguette slices
¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Sauté green garlic in olive oil until slightly caramelized and transparent. Add asparagus and sauté 3 minutes until bright green. Add stock and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until asparagus is tender. Add cream, vinegar and nutmeg. Bring back to a boil and turn off heat. Puree with a hand held immersion blender or a regular blender and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Place baguette slices on a baking sheet and sprinkle with cheese. Bake in a *350 oven for 8 to 10 minutes until cheese is bubbly and crouton is crispy. Use to garnish soup. Serves 4
Grilled Asparagus w/ Balsamic Vinegar
2 pounds asparagus ends trimmed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Toss asparagus in a bowl with olive oil and salt to coat.
Grill on low heat on a gas grill or on the low temperature end of a charcoal grill.
Grill until the outside skin begins to blister and turn bright green.
Remove from heat and place on a platter. Sprinkle with balsamic and a little more salt to taste. Serves4
Risotto with Green Garlic and Asparagus
1 large red onion, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ cups Aborio or Carnaroli rice or you can substitute barley for more fiber and protein
about 6 cups stock, heated
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound asparagus, sliced in ¼ in pieces
4 stalks of green garlic, cleaned and sliced
6 ounces of grated parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Kosher salt and freshly grated pepper
Heat olive oil in a deep, heavy sauce pan. Add onions and sauté for about 4 minutes until they begin to caramelize. Add the rice and sauté for 3 to 4 more minute until the rice becomes opaque and starts to brown. Add a cup of stock and let it come to a boil. Stir well and reduce heat slightly to a simmer. When stock is almost absorbed add another cup and let absorb. Add another cup and keep repeating until risotto is creamy and almost soft. Turn off heat and in another sauté pan heat the olive oil and sauté green garlic and asparagus until both are bright green. Stir into rice and season with parsley, salt and pepper. Serve with grated cheese. Serves 4.