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Chef John Foster: Summer deluge hits markets, take advantage while you can, especially asparagus

The spigots have been cranked wide open, and the summer deluge has begun to hit the markets and then my restaurant tables. Multiple items that were just a whisper last week arrive almost daily at my kitchen door and the loading dock of the school.

Greens, fresh herbs, strawberries, spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, leeks and green garlic are now all ably represented on menus around the city. If you’re looking to freshen up your home tables this week, there is plenty to be excited about. Quantities might not yet reach the levels of a late day market trip, usually, the asparagus is gone early, but the quality is tops right now. Therein lies the rub, the one negative of the whole farm to table, 100-mile, locavore movement; its transient nature.

We are into week three of a heavy asparagus supply, with a corresponding demand. I am hopeful that it will continue even through next week. Temperatures continue to climb, and asparagus is one that tolerates only so much before it says goodbye until next year. With the influx of new items that may not be an issue, as people surprisingly tire of one crop, especially when a new one enters the market. Add to this idea the concept of “asparagus fatigue” and before long the demand has slipped, and the time and energy to harvest asparagus isn’t cost effective anymore. This revelation can be applied to many items during the growing season and is sometimes the determining factor in how much of one item is grown, and how much time is spent on it. Farmers will often plant multiple times, not only to take advantage of the longer growing seasons but as a way of “re-amping” the demand for some products. Bringing back an item in this way will create a secondary demand that takes advantage of the customer’s love of certain items, even though that love may wax and wane.

What are we to make then of the asparagus question (fill in asparagus with many other items for the same discussion)? I love it, will eat it until its gone, and then pine for it until it returns locally in the spring. Out of season, out of state asparagus is not on my prep list, and within that sacrifice, I understand that I have a limited time with this fascinating vegetable. To extend interest and keep asparagus in house I rely on various cooking methods and sometimes intriguing preparations. Asparagus pesto, a quick cream of asparagus soup, asparagus crudo with lemon vinaigrette are all dishes I have served in the past.

I have been a proponent of grilled asparagus in the past but realize now that the best time for that dish is when the asparagus is fat and stubby, allowing the grill to caramelize but not burn up the stalks. I’m experimenting now with lightly smoking the stalks, trying to find a happy balance with the grass like quality of the vegetable and the finished product that reminds one of toasted wheat, I’m contemplating a bisque of smoked asparagus and country bacon, with enough fat it may round off the edges that exist right now.

Asparagus crudo is like any other crudo preparation, it requires stellar product and a light, deft touch with sauces and vinaigrettes. Marinate the asparagus too long and you have grey-green stalks that taste of vinegar. Dressed would be a better term for what is done, and the dressings need to be balanced and light. The concept is based on raw vegetables, so your choice of asparagus is clear-cut; slender and tender is the best, multicolored stalks present well and break up what might be just a plate of green. You want to promote texture in this preparation, always keeping in mind that no one wants to work at enjoying their food. Be sure to trim well, even peeling some of the larger stalks to readily accept flavors and provide crunch without stringiness.

Also, I tend to avoid wrapping the asparagus in a suit of ham or prosciutto. I do like some pork with my asparagus, but I look for ways to enhance, not envelope the delicate nature of the dish. One of my favorite combination dishes that I believe has the best of early summer is a BLAT. Yes, you heard me right, a B.L.T. with A. for asparagus. Lightly blanched or even roasted and chilled it not only provide more green on the sandwich but also blends well with good mayonnaise and early summer tomatoes. Add some house bacon and a sourdough bread cut thick and it’s almost an entire meal. The richness of cured pork and the grassiness of fresh asparagus are memorable.

There are many dishes, more mainstream and traditional that still hold up well with asparagus. Don’t be tentative about starting at the beginning, a good steamed asparagus with hollandaise still delights if all the components are well made. Roasted or sautéed asparagus served immediately or chilled and served with another element like pasta or risotto extends the traditional into the realm of collaboration, taking some of the pressure of large plates of asparagus. And lest we forget, asparagus pesto, cream of asparagus soup and even tempura are still tried and true recipes for success. Don’t turn away just yet, it might be a long time before you taste spring like this again.

Cream of asparagus soup-
We do a lot of soups at The Sage Rabbit, and most of them are quick and painless, no long hours spent toiling over the stove. After trimming the stems, we combine them with cream and asparagus stock, (made with more stems and water) in equal parts. For a cup of stems, use a cup of stock and a cup of cream. Reduce slowly and allow the stems to soften considerably. The stock and cream will thicken slightly, and the color will shift from white to a faint green. Once this happens, puree the whole mixture and strain through a fine chinois. Chop your blanched spears into bite-size pieces, 3 stalks per cup of soup. Simmer the soup base until it starts to thicken and then add in the chopped asparagus. Season with salt and white pepper and you have a light flavorful cream of asparagus soup.
Asparagus pesto-
Treat this like any pesto made with herbs, and you have the option to use raw or blanched asparagus. Choose your nut wisely, pine nuts tend to reinforce some of the faint bitterness that asparagus has. I prefer toasted pecan, Parmesan or Romano or a mix, and good olive oil. If I’m using cooked asparagus its more for the bright green color my pesto will have. If it’s raw asparagus you prefer then remember that it will not be cooked even by the finishing process, as most pestos should only be added to the pasta after it’s off the stove, that way the cheese doesn’t melt to the bottom of the pan. This pesto (especially the raw pesto) is also very good in risotto with some smoked chicken or sautéed rock shrimp.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.  

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