While I am traveling on business during the next several weeks, some of my friends have graciously sent me articles and photographs to share with all of you. I can’t wait for you to meet each one and discover new blogs to follow and meet some of the best talent in the industry!
Bruce Hopkins is another Facebook friend that I cannot wait to meet in person! He is the Chef/Owner of The Chef’s Table, a company that produces BBQ sauces, pasta sauces, spice blends and specialty salts in Puyallup, Washington. They also offer cooking lessons, private chef work, catering, and cooking tips. Check it out – you’ll love his products! When I come up for air after all my traveling, I will be highlighting some of my favorites!
And now for a taste of spring, here’s Bruce!
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The Beauty of Asparagus
Asparagus, or “aspergrass” as my father called it, often gets a bad rap from so many people. “It’s mushy, stringy, woody or bitter! Can’t stand it!” How often have you heard people say that about asparagus?
I grew up in an area my father referred to as, “The fruit and vegetable bowl of the nation.” In a small, rural and agricultural town of about 3,000 people surrounded by fields filled with vegetables, fruit orchards and cattle ranchers. It was like growing up in the best “grocery store” in the world with fresh foods and family butchered meats available. Unfortunately we had to travel some to get good fresh seafood, but that did not stop our family from enjoying what we did have. With a background such as this how could I not help but learn to cook and enjoy it? But I digress from the subject of asparagus, which I grew up learning to both love and hate.
One of my older brothers referred to it as “grass”. He did not like it, but in later life he found he loved it. Why the change of heart? Well, even though my mother taught “Home Economics” in high school for some time we discovered she did not know how to cook the stuff. When it is not properly cooked all the complaints we are familiar with come true.
First we need to look at the source of this wonderful vegetable. It loves a rather arid climate that is very warm, yet likes to get its share of water. The farms outside my hometown in the Yakima Valley were, and still are perfect for “grass” fields. My father and I would go to the edge of town near the asparagus fields and walk the banks of the irrigation banks looking for “wild aspergrass”, or volunteers from last years seeds the wind had blown there. Cutting the young spears off just below the dirt line we would harvest our vegetable for the evening dinner. Cutting it off below the surface allows the plant to grow another spear for harvest in a few more days.
What most people do not realize is that the “grass” we were harvesting is outstanding right then and there. It is crisp and crunchy and still slightly warm from the day’s sun. The best part is when you realize, as you bite down on that beautiful green spear with its slightly purpled crown that it is actually slightly sweet! But wait! You say you have eaten it and it isn’t sweet? There is a reason for that, and a way to fix it also.
Like any fresh fruit or vegetable, with a few exceptions, when it is harvested it immediately begins to lose its natural sugars. In the case of asparagus this loss is rapid, and unless utilized very soon after it is picked it becomes less flavorful and even bitter. There is however, a method to amend this, and it is very simple.
Let’s take a look at how to select good asparagus. Asparagus is best when it is young and slender, not old and large. The spear should have a nice green color with the top just beginning to show a faint purple cast to it. Since most all of us are relegated to buying our asparagus in the super market or local veggie stand there are certain measures we can take to more closely replicate freshly harvested “grass”.
After carefully inspecting and choosing your bunch of grass and getting it into your kitchen, take the following steps and you will be surprised at the result. It should go without saying, wash your asparagus with cold running water to get excess dirt and other contaminates off the veggie. Do not scrub it, simply rinse under cold running water.
Now pick up a spear and gently hold it between your thumb and index finger about one inch from the middle toward the bottom of the spear, or near where the color is changing from green to white. Do the same with the other hand and when you bend the spear, it will snap. Throw the bottom half away. Use this one as a guide to trim the rest of the bunch.
Place the top halves in a bowl containing about two to three cups of cold water in which you have dissolved about 1/4 cup or less of sugar. That’s right, sugar! What you want is “sweet water”. Allow the spears to soak in this solution no less than one hour and as long as 48 hours. (I’ve actually kept it for up to two weeks this way in my refrigerator, using a little each day.) This helps replace the natural sweetness it has lost in being harvested, packed, shipped and placed on your vendor’s shelf for the last day or seven.
Now we are ready to cook it. There are so many ways to cook asparagus, but there is one “rule” by which I abide … cook it hot and cook it fast! The most common way is to steam it. I do not recommend boiling it, this allows to many nutrients to leach out and it is too easy to over cook it. Over cooking leads to mushy, bitter and stringy stuff that has no resemblance to good asparagus.
When you steam it, plan on this being the last thing you do for dinner. Place your vegetable in a cold steamer no deeper than two layers deep, and with only enough water to keep your pan wet for the entire process. Excess water in the pan slows down the “up to temperature time” required and will over cook the “grass”. Bring the water to a boil on high. As soon as you see steam escaping from under the lid and you know the water is boiling wait about 30 seconds to one minute and then turn the burner off and remove the steamer from the heat allowing the carry over steam to finish the job. Let it sit for two to threes minutes and serve. The asparagus should be very bright green, hot through and still crunchy. It is over cooked if the color has passed beyond bright green. This is true regardless of how you cook it.
Want something a little more “special”? Follow the recipe below to grill your asparagus on your barbecue. You can use the same preparation and sauté them, or even roast them. Just remember, cook them hot and cook them fast. This makes a great side dish or salad topper.
Cheesy Grilled Asparagus
Bruce Hopkins, The Chef’s Table
Yield: about 4 servings
3 cups cold water
3 tbsp granulated sugar
1 bunch asparagus
2 to 3 tbsp organic olive oil
Johnny’s Salad and Pasta Elegance or other salad seasoning mix
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Place the water and sugar in a large mixing bowl and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside. Snap off the tough ends of all the asparagus spears (see above for more detailed directions), discard the tough ends, and place the tender tops in the sweetened water. Let the asparagus soak for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days.
Preheat your outdoor grill or barbecue on High for 15 minutes. If you are using a charcoal grill, build a medium-hot fire and bank the coals to one side of the grill.
While the grill is preheating, remove the asparagus from the water bath and pat dry. Drizzle the spears with the olive oil, and using your hands, make sure all surfaces are coated. Sprinkle them lightly with the salad seasoning, turning so all surfaces get seasoned. Sprinkle on 2 tbsp of the Parmesan and place them on the hot grill, laying them facing perpendicular to the grates.
Cook, turning when they have grill marks, until tender with a little crunch, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Taste one to judge doneness. Remove from the grill, transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle the remaining Parmesan over the top and serve.
You can use the same preparation and sauté or even roast them. Just remember, cook them hot, and cook them fast!
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To learn more about Bruce, follow his food adventures and discover his delicious recipes, make sure you visit The Chef’s Table. And you can follow him on the following social media sites:
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