Spring calls for artichokes Roman-style

Consider the thistle:  It hides its tender, buttery heart behind a shield of leathery leaves tipped with sharp spines.  Only an intrepid forager could have discovered its edible secret.  Yet artichokes are now one of the culinary rewards of spring.

Although artichokes are harvested twice a year, I crave them most when they offer a welcome change from the monotony of winter produce.   The crops from nearby Castroville, where most American artichokes are grown, are largest in March through May and the prices dip at the peak of the harvest. Continue reading Spring calls for artichokes Roman-style

Asparagus is here at last!

The wind howled and icy showers turned to hail here last week as winter refused to loosen its grip on our weather.  But the first fat bunches of beautiful green asparagus showed up in the local farmers markets and spring could not be denied.

After months of eating root vegetables and bitter greens,  it was almost a religious experience to bite into the first tender stalks from Hog Farm in Hollister and revel in their sweet, grassy flavor.

There is no vegetable I anticipate more eagerly than the first asparagus of spring, in part because it’s the harbinger of fabulous produce to come.  If asparagus is here, can peas and strawberries be far behind?

The first spears of the season are so tender and fresh-tasting, they require little more than properly timed cooking and perhaps a drizzle of melted butter or good extra virgin olive oil. They should still be a little crisp when you serve them.  A moment too long on the heat and they’re likely to turn mushy and stringy.

I like to roast asparagus for a short time at a high temperature, which caramelizes the natural sugars and concentrates the flavors.  The color remains a vivid emerald green and the taste is bright and true.  Although I use an oven at this time of the year, a grill also works well when the weather warms up.

To dress them up, slice up a few shallots and roast them with the asparagus.  Anoint the roasted vegetables with a slick of mustard-laced vinaigrette and sprinkle them with curds of tangy goat cheese.  The shallots offer a delicate, onion accent while the vinaigrette and goat cheese serve as gentle counterpoints to the sweet stalks.

Alternatively, you can cook asparagus stalks in a single layer with about half a cup of water in a wide skillet.  Bring the water to a boil, cover and cook for just a couple of minutes, until the thick part of the stalks is easily pierced with a small, sharp knife.

I never peel asparagus but I do snap off the tough ends, taking care not to lose too much in the process.  I know there are fans of thick, meaty stalks and those who prefer the pencil-thin variety.  I’m not that picky, though, especially early in the season when I’ll take any freshly picked local asparagus I can get.

There’s no denying that fat spears are the easiest to roast or steam to the proper texture. They take a little longer to cook through and timing is not so critical.  On the other hand, the skinny ones are better for a risotto or a tart.

Look for firm stalks with tightly furled tips and cook them as soon as possible.  Just be careful not to overcook them.  No one wants soggy asparagus.

Serves 4 

1 pound fresh asparagus, medium or fat stalks
½ cup thinly sliced shallots
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 ounce soft goat cheese, crumbled
Mustard vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Wash asparagus and trim ends.  Place stalks on a large baking sheet.  Scatter sliced shallots over asparagus, drizzle with olive oil and gently toss until vegetables are lightly coated with oil. Spread stalks out in a single layer on the baking sheet and roast just until a small, sharp knife easily pierces the thickest part of the stalks.  It should take about 10 minutes.

Transfer roasted vegetables to a serving platter and drizzle with vinaigrette.  Sprinkle with crumbled goat cheese.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Mustard vinaigrette
Makes about ½ cup

1½ teaspoons minced shallots
1 tablespoon mustard
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons champagne or white wine vinegar
6 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Shake all the ingredients together in a small jar with a tightly fitting lid. Or whisk together shallots, mustard, salt and vinegar in a small bowl until well blended.  Slowly whisk a thin stream of olive oil into the mustard mixture until a smooth emulsion forms.  Stir in black pepper to taste.  Shake or whisk again just before serving if the emulsion begins to break.

Aleta Watson




Scones in the Irish style

I had been meaning to make Irish soda bread in honor of St. Patrick this week when an offhand note in the recipe sent me off in a new direction.

In the introduction to his Irish soda bread recipe in “Home Baking” (Artisan, 2003), food writer and world traveler Jeffrey Alford mentions making scones at the impromptu boarding house he once ran in Ireland. The buns sounded like much more fun than the traditional loaf. There’s nothing I like better than scones for breakfast and these were packed with whole grains.

They come together quickly and cook much faster than loaves, too. While you’re still waiting for a loaf to come out of the oven, you could be munching on a hot scone slathered in melting butter. Add a little jam and life is very good, indeed. Continue reading Scones in the Irish style

Toffee transforms chocolate chip cookies


Meet my new favorite cookie.

I know, I’m a fickle cookie lover, easily distracted by the latest flavor sensation.  I’ve rarely met a homemade cookie I didn’t like.

But this combination of toffee and chocolate chips has my number.  It’s chewy and nutty at the center with crisp edges and the buttery flavor of toffee playing off  bittersweet chocolate chips. One just leads to another and another and….. Continue reading Toffee transforms chocolate chip cookies

Mini muffulettas for Mardi Gras

As much as I’d love to, I’ve never been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  The memory of  the great food I ate on my one trip to the Big Easy still lingers, though.

About this time of year, I always start thinking about celebrating Mardi Gras at home with some of those unforgettable flavors. There’s no way I can hope to recreate the fabulous Gulf Coast seafood where I live, of course.  But it’s not that difficult to approximate  the savory satisfaction of the muffuletta sandwiches made legendary by Central Grocery in the French quarter near the turn of the last century. Continue reading Mini muffulettas for Mardi Gras