By Chef Judi Gallagher –
Ah, asparagus — one of my favorite vegetables and one of the special delights of any spring menu. Despite an aversion that some people have for this beautiful vegetable, asparagus is a flavorful vegetable that’s incredibly versatile, and just as good roasted with a little olive oil, salt and pepper as it is pureed in a creamy soup. Steaming is probably the most common way to cook them. Remember not to overcook. Asparagus should never be soggy.
When you go to your grocery store, you may very well see two types of asparagus — green and white. Green is the more common variety, and you can get it year round almost everywhere.
White asparagus, which is white because the farmer restricts the amount of available sunlight (by covering the vegetable) is often available only at farmers’ markets. White asparagus is a bit thicker and calls for peeling its outer layer. White asparagus also has a milder flavor than its sibling. But either white or green asparagus, you’ll want to look for bright color, well packed tips, and thick, strong spears that snap not bend.
It’s best to cook asparagus the day of purchase. But if you need to store asparagus just pretend your asparagus is a bouquet of flowers and place the stalks in a glass in an inch of water, then cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate. If you need to freeze asparagus, blanch the stalks by dunking them in boiling water for about three minutes, then plunge into chilled water, drain and freeze in a zip lock bag or airtight container. You can store for up to nine months.
When you’re ready to use cook asparagus, make sure you wash the stalks carefully. If you’re cooking asparagus in boiling water, bundle in a bunch of 10-12 stalks for quick cooking. If you’re roasting the vegetable, make sure to coat evenly with salt, pepper, good olive oil and any other herbs you may want to use.
Some of my favorite asparagus are prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, asparagus with roasted garlic aioli, asparagus ravioli in a Parmesan cheese sauce, creamy asparagus soup, and — for brunch — roasted asparagus with goat cheese and bacon.
Spring is for Lamb and Ramps
To many cooks, spring means ramp season. More people should seek out this lovely wild onion that is native to North America. Ramps grow from South Carolina to Canada and are considered a spring delicacy and even a reason for celebration. The flavor and odor of ramps is often considered a cross between a strong onion and a garlic bulb. The growing season for ramps is quite short so gather your ramps quickly and serve with roasted lamb and asparagus salad for a springtime feast.
Scallop Potatoes with Ramps
Serves 6 to 8
6 cups sliced potatoes
3 cups ramps or wild leeks
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup chicken broth
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Place a layer of sliced potatoes in a buttered 1 1/2-quart casserole, follow with a layer of ramps and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Repeat layers, ending with potatoes. Combine chicken broth and heavy cream; pour over potatoes and ramps. Bake at 375° for 45 minutes, then top with grated cheese. Return to the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.
For carving table side, leg of lamb looks best if the shank bone is left in. For the stuffing, use country-style white bread or an Italian loaf with a light crumb; otherwise your stuffing will be heavy. You can make the lamb broth called for below with the bones and trimmings from the leg. Or you can use dry white wine or an easy mushroom broth made by soaking a small handful of dried porcini mushrooms in 1 1/4 cups of hot water for about 30 minutes.
3 3/4 cups cubed day-old bread
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large shallot
2 ounces pancetta, finely diced
2 ounces mortadella, finely diced
8 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
1 cup lamb broth (see headnote)
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Freshly ground pepper
One 4 1/2 – to 5-pound leg of lamb, butterflied, shank bone left in
Preheat the oven to 400°. Toss the bread with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Spread the bread on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until dry and brown. In a small skillet, warm the remaining 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil. Add the shallot, pancetta, mortadella and sage and stir over moderate heat until the shallot is soft, about 5 minutes. In a bowl, combine the toasted bread with the lamb broth (see introduction for options) and let stand for 5 minutes. Add the pancetta mixture along with the cheese and mix well. Season the stuffing liberally with pepper.
Open the leg of lamb and season the meat with salt and pepper. Spread the stuffing over the meat and then re-form the leg, patting it into an even cylindrical shape. Tie the roast at 1-inch intervals and place in a small roasting pan. Season with salt and pepper. Roast the leg of lamb on the top shelf of the oven for 1 hour and 10 minutes, basting with the pan juices every 20 minutes. The meat is medium-rare when the internal temperature reaches 125°. Let the roast rest for about 10 minutes, then carve and serve with the pan juices. (If the pan is dry, deglaze it by stirring in approximately 1 cup of water and boiling until the juices are well reduced and flavorful.)