Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Rite of Spring

It’s official. Despite my Winter attire for this weekend’s baseball games (Go Sox!), Spring has finally arrived. How can I tell? The first local asparagus have arrived.

Before I became aware of the concept of sustainability in eating, I ate seasonally for reasons of taste. Like other really great foods, tomatoes, strawberries and peaches, pristinely fresh asparagus in season is a taste worth waiting for. Having just been down below the Mason-Dixon line, I had some of the first “fruits” of the season and they were heavenly. While it was initially hard to shake Winter’s mentality of scarceness, like a teenager first feeling the heady exhilaration of love, I couldn’t get enough. Crisp, grassy local asparagus, luscious, juicy strawberries red to their core and super sweet soft shell crabs – my return to Chicago was a sad one when I remembered that it was nearly another month before the farmers markets opened.

And then, like a crocus peeking its head out from under the dead leaf cover, an email from Fresh Picks promised Spring’s triumphant return.

Here is my favorite way to prepare asparagus, which is incredibly easy and enhances its wonderful flavor.

Sautéed Asparagus
For 6 servings

2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and rinsed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt

EQUIPMENT SUGGESTED: 9-inch sauté pan with lid.

METHOD: Heat the butter in the pan over medium heat. When the foam subsides, add the asparagus and toss to coat. Cook for 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Add salt to taste.

A sauce that I love to prepare for asparagus is aioli, particularly made with Green Garlic – another special Spring treat. The aioli pairs very well with lamb, a meat often associated with Spring.

Green Garlic Aioli
Makes approximately 2 cups

1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
¾ cup canola oil
1 garlic clove, mashed to a paste with a pinch of salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped green garlic
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Food Processor Method: Combine the whole egg, egg yolks, lemon juice and mustard in the bowl of a food processor. Through the feed tube, pour the olive and canola oils in a very slow stream while the machine is on. The aioli is done when it’s thick and emulsified. When fully emulsified, the mixture will make a distinctive slapping sound against the sides of the bowl. Add both garlics. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
By Hand: Combine the egg yolks and mustard in a medium size bowl. Wrap a kitchen towel around the base of the bowl to anchor it. Pour the oils into the egg mixture in a slow stream until the two are emulsified. Add the garlics and lemon juice. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Fixing a broken mayonnaise: It is almost certain that if you make mayonnaise or aioli more than once, it will break. There’s no need to start over. Simply whisk 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard in a mixing bowl, add 1 tablespoon of the broken mayonnaise (make sure that you stir it up first to ensure that you get oil and egg in the sample), whisk together until the mixture thickens. Slowly add the remaining broken mayonnaise, whisking constantly until emulsified.
Doctoring store bought mayonnaise: If you’re concerned about using raw eggs or pressed for time, you can easily doctor a commercially produced mayonnaise. Take 2 cups of store bought mayonnaise (I suggest Hellmann’s) and add the lemon juice, Dijon mustard, both garlics called for in this recipe. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Do-ahead notes: The aioli can be made up to 5 days ahead and refrigerated.

Red Wine-Scented Leg of Lamb
For 6 generous servings

1 bone-in leg of lamb with the lower leg bone intact, but the aitchbone or hipbone removed for easier carving, approximately 8 pounds
1 cup assertive red wine, such as a Cabernet or Syrah
6 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons rosemary leaves, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

EQUIPMENT SUGGESTED: A pan large enough to accommodate the lamb while marinating, a roasting pan, a roasting rack, meat thermometer.

Marinating: The night before serving, put the lamb into a large, shallow pan. Rub garlic cloves and rosemary into the meat to release their essential oils. Add the wine and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Roasting: Remove the lamb from the refrigerator about an hour prior to roasting to bring to room temperature. Preheat oven to 350°F. Add 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan. Remove the lamb from the marinade and put it onto a rack in the prepared roasting pan. Rub the lamb with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Season it with salt and pepper to taste. Roast for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until lamb reaches 125° F. Let rest for 15 minutes before carving to allow the juices to flow back into the meat.
Carving: Using a napkin to protect your hand from the heat of the bone, hold the end of the leg bone and lift it up to a 45° degree angle away from the cutting board. Carve the lamb into thin slices.

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