Asparagus & Rhubarb

May 14, 2009 | By | COMMENTS

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I used to be very confused about seasonal food. I understood the basic idea–that you should buy food when it’s in season, at its peak–but what I didn’t understand is that because most supermarkets in America stock these “seasonal” foods all-year round (tomatoes and watermelon in winter), the only real way to experience seasonal food is by going to farmer’s markets.

I started going right around the time I wrote my book (for Chapter Two, “Master The Market”) and I’ve been going steadily ever since. And now seasonal food is no longer this vague, academic concept: it’s actually a source of great joy and pleasure. Each Saturday in the Spring, Summer and Fall, I either go to Union Square or the Farmer’s Market in Grand Army Plaza and I force myself to bring something home. Force myself, because I sometimes get overwhelmed with all the options and give up. But when you force yourself to buy something–anything–you end up cooking and tasting foods you wouldn’t have otherwise and that builds your knowledge base so that one year later, when you see those exact same foods at the farmer’s market, you know exactly what to buy. Which, for me, was precisely the case with asparagus and rhubarb.

We all know asparagus: that’s one food you can buy year round (at least I can) wrapped in plastic at your local megastore. But if you’ve never had real asparagus that pops up in the Spring, that’s only around for a few weeks, you haven’t had asparagus. It has all the qualities of that year-round asparagus, only it’s a thousand times more potent. That uniquely grassy, vegetal taste becomes the first real taste of Spring and if you haven’t bought yours yet this year, I command you to get thee to a farmer’s market this weekend before it’s gone. Roast it in the oven, top with fried eggs and lots of Parmesan or do what I did this past weekend and make Anne Burrell’s raw asparagus salad:

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It’s a strange salad I saw her make on her show. You take raw asparagus, slice it into little bits, toss with lots of olive oil, red wine vinegar, chopped red onion, salt and pepper and then grate mountains of fresh Pecorino on top. (I didn’t have Pecorino so I used Parmesan and that worked fine.) When you stir it all together, the cheese becomes creamy and all those flavors pop so intensely, you’ll never eat asparagus any other way again.

Well, unless you go to Franny’s, which is quickly becoming one of my Top 3 favorite restaurants. Here’s the asparagus salad Craig and I shared the other night:

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As you can see, the asparagus is either steamed or boiled but then it’s topped with a barrage of items: radishes, hard boiled eggs, anchovies, and olive oil. It’s another explosive asparagus dish you can try to make at home.

As for rhubarb, it’s the desserty version of asparagus in that it also has a uniquely earthy taste (though much tarter) and screams of Spring. I had it in a cocktail at Franny’s that same night with Craig:

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It was such a lovely drink, I’m tempted to call them for the recipe. Will one of you do that for me? Thanks!

But the best use for rhubarb, I think, is when it’s baked–either in a cobbler (like Deb recently did) or in a crisp, as I did this weekend using this recipe from Martha Stewart.

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It really couldn’t be more simple. You take rhubarb (I used 1 lb and halved the recipe), cut it into 1/2-inch pieces, toss in a bowl with orange zest and juice of one orange (I used a lemon instead), 1/4 cup sugar, and 1 Tbs of corn starch and put the mixture in ramekins (or a baking dish).

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Then, to make the topping, just use your fingers to mix together 1/2 a cup plus 3/4 Tbs all purpose flour, 1/4 cup dark brown sugar, 1/8 tsp salt, and 1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats.

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(I left out cinnamon and nutmeg, because I wanted the rhubarb to shine!) Once you’ve mixed that together, cut really cold butter–6 Tbs–into small pieces, then toss them with the dry stuff, and pinch it until it looks clumpy. Press on top of the rhubarb in the ramekins:

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Bake at 375 for 30 minutes, until it’s browned on top and the rhubarb is bubbling.

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That’s a Springy sight if I’ve ever seen one!

So those of you are are seasonally squeamish, who don’t know where to start in the great quest for timely food, now is the moment. These are the days of asparagus and rhubarb and they won’t last long. Go forth and stalk these stalks of Springtime deliciousness and report back on how it all went. I have a feeling that, over time, as it did with me, seasonal shopping will become a habit–and asparagus and rhubarb will become Springtime staples in your home.

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