Dear friends of Bare Bones,
Happy spring! The heat arrived so quickly here in D.C. our landlord hasn’t had time to turn off the radiators. Unpleasant during work hours, but my bedroom now doubles as a sauna. On the bright side, asparagus, one of my favorite foods, has come in at the farmer’s market!
New to Bare Bones? Here’s our About page.
We’ve got several recipes for you this week, along with a few upcoming events:
First off, my mom’s new book is out! The Perennial Kitchen: Simple Recipes for a Healthy Future is both a cookbook and a guide to transforming our food systems. The fabulous U of M Press is hosting a launch on May 17 with a slate of stellar panelists, including our old friend Kieran Folliard. Buy the book here and RSVP here.
Secondly, if you want to make delicious home meals from local ingredients, join us for our very first Bare Bones Cooking Class this June. This all-levels class will help you learn to turn farmer’s market baskets into tasty, tasty meals. It will consist of instructional videos and optional homework, a weekly Zoom call, and support in creating your very own recipe book – plus, a community of fellow home cooks. Learn more and RSVP here.
People always ask me what it was like growing up learning how to cook from a master chef such as my mom. Truth is, I didn’t learn to cook anything beyond french toast and scrambled eggs until adulthood. As a boy, I was far too busy tearing through the green hills of Kenwood park, or battling with my brothers in backyard lacrosse, to spend much time in the kitchen. And sure, I liked food, my mom’s especially, but it was really just something to wolf down so I could keep on running. It wasn’t until my early 20’s, faced with the harsh reality that I could only eat rice and beans with barbecue sauce so many days per week without coming to dread the mere thought of mealtime, that I began my apprenticeship with mom.
What’s so incredible, and at times infuriating, about cooking with Beth Dooley is that she makes it look so simple. Nearly all her advice begins with the phrase “It’s so easy, all you have to do...” a phrase I used to take as some kind of faux modesty tic. But after ten or so years of my own cooking journey, I’ve come to realize that she’s right. All the things you need to know to make delicious home meals are actually quite simple: how long to cook different types of veggies, which spices and herbs go well together, how to make a base – a good home cook can learn all these things, with enough time and practice. A great home cook can do all the basics from memory, and on command, improvising with whatever ingredients are in season or in the cupboard to make new, surprising combinations.
(My mom, for the record can do all of the above that while telling a story, and watering the plants, and prepping the dough for dessert. ADHD? Genius? Probably both.)
Today’s ingredient, asparagus, is the perfect vegetable for our Bare Bones ethic. You can roast it, grill it, purée it – though I would happily eat it blanched and slicked with olive oil, lemon and a pinch of rock salt for the rest of my days on earth. If you’re just starting out with asparagus, toss it in boiling water for 5 or so minutes, until it’s bright green and you can pierce the thickest part of the stalk with a sharp knife. Drain in a colander and immediately drop it into a bowl of ice water (this is ‘blanching’). Pat it dry, toss it in a bowl with olive oil, lemon juice and pinch of rock salt, and get ready for your friends to beg you for the recipe. Go ahead, say it with me now:
“It’s so easy, all you have to do...”
My cookbooks would be nothing without beautiful photographs, which in recent years have been supplied by my dear friend and collaborator Mette Nielsen. She also happens to be a master gardener who grows asparagus in her sunny backyard, and lots of it. The other day, I stopped by to see how the early tips that just weeks ago were poking through the hard damp earth, had already turned into pencil-sized shoots. Mette cut the stalks and filled a basket as we chatted, leaving a row behind to “fern out,” (flower, basically) into a lacy hedge — which ensures the asparagus will return next year.
Asparagus is one of the first harvests of the spring in northern climes. Asparagus shipped in from California in January are a wholly different vegetable, much thinner and softer. Local, fresh asparagus with its thick, fibrous crunch and hearty spears of green and purple are worth waiting for, all the sweeter for our anticipation. Gardeners like Mette know that patience pays off. It takes up to three years for a plant to yield more than just a few stalks, but once established, asparagus will produce stalks for at least 20 years with hardly any maintenance and no replanting.
Look for asparagus that’s smooth and glossy, with tightly closed tips and bottoms that look freshly cut (this means it’ll be plenty sweet). It doesn’t stay fresh for long, so try and enjoy it right away; if you must wait, store the stalks upright in an inch of water in the fridge for a day or two at most.
Green asparagus is the most common variety; white is favored in Europe, where the plants are covered in mulch to prevent them from developing the chlorophyll that turns them green. White is best when cooked a few minutes longer than its green cousin. Purple asparagus (Kip’s favorite!) turns green once cooked, and is a touch sweeter.
There’s no way to tell the quality or age of asparagus by its size. Pencil thin, medium and jumbo asparagus are equally delicious. Thin asparagus is best stir-fried or sautéed, fat ones are better for roasting or grilling, and medium swings both ways.
To prepare asparagus, hold the spear with both hands, find the natural bending point near the bottom of the stalk, then snap it off. The spear should break at the point where the asparagus has started to lose its moisture.
Over-wintered parsnips make a fine companion to fresh asparagus, which, harvested in early spring after the ground thaws, have mellowed and sweetened. These gnarled roots may look tough, but they cook up to be tender and lush. Roast them along with asparagus for a dish that bookends the harvest seasons.
Simply slice the parsnips in half vertically and remove the tough inner core, then slice into 1-inch pieces. Cut the trimmed asparagus to be the same size. Turn them into a bowl and toss with just enough olive oil to lightly coat, then spread out on a baking sheet, sprinkle with just a little coarse salt, and roast in a hot (450 degree) oven until their edges turn a caramel brown and they’re tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Season with a splash of lemon juice and a little grated Parmesan cheese for side dish, or toss with pasta — and dinner is done!
Or, if you’re looking for a more fresh-and-light dish, try the radish and asparagus salad below. Either way, you’ll get to enjoy the flavors of spring kissing the flavors of fall.
Radish and Asparagus Salad in Savory Vinaigrette
Serves 4 to 6
4 slices thick cut bacon (optional)
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 shallot, finely minced
1 tablespoon coarse mustard
2 tablespoons hazelnut or extra virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
1 pound asparagus, trimmed
1/2 cup sliced red radishes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper.
In a large frying pan, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Crumble and set aside. Reserve the rendered fat in the pan.
In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, shallot, and mustard. Carefully pour the bacon fat through a fine mesh sieve into the vinegar mixture, whiskinging until smooth and emulsified. Taste and if it’s too strong, add a little more oil.
Fill half of a large skillet with water, set over high heat, and bring to a boil. Set the asparagus in the skillet so the tips rest on the side of the pan and the spears are immersed. Cook the asparagus until a sharp paring knife can pierce the fattest part of the spear without resistance, about 5 to 9 minutes, depending on the size of the stalks. Drain the asparagus in a colander and refresh with cold running water. Set the asparagus on a clean dish towel of paper towel and pat dry.
Arrange the asparagus and the radishes on a serving plate and pour the dressing over all. Scatter the crumbled bacon over the top. Season with the salt and pepper to taste.