Monday, April 19, 2010

Little Trees

Asparagus is a funny vegetable. Some people love it, some people hate it. In my opinion, the people who hate it have been exposed to an overcooked, possibly overgrown, bitter-tasting stalk. This is not the asparagus I know. But that has not always been the case.
I was exposed to few vegetables as a child. We had canned green beans and corn, frozen mixed vegetables (a mix that included the loathed Lima bean) and an iceberg salad garnished the table on occasion. I may have met asparagus during those years, but I do not remember the encounter.
As a young adult I began experimenting with different vegetables. I loved the thrill I got when I loaded up those flimsy plastic bags in the produce aisle with beautiful red lettuces, waxy cucumbers, even glossy, deep purple eggplant found its way to my home. I tried many different things, just to try the flavors. Asparagus was one of those. I tried it, and left it. I am sure I overcooked it, and I remember deciding the bitter, earthly flavored vegetable was not for me. I tried it with hollandaise and a creamy white sauce, but I still couldn't get past the stringy stalk and soft tip.
About two years ago, I decided I would try it again. Actually, someone deposited a large sum into my care and I needed to do something with it before it went to waste. I made a cream of asparagus soup that I had just spotted in one of my magazines, and of course, that was a big hit. It tasted nothing of asparagus. I decided I would give it one more go, so I wrapped a few stalks in bacon and roasted them in the oven with some olive oil and salt and pepper. They were still very crunchy, and we actually ate them without too much difficulty. Shortly after, I roasted them again with tomatoes, again, they were consumed quite quickly.
Asparagus now graces our table quite frequently when it is in season. Recently, I have found a new twist I enjoy. I was reading in one of my favorite cooking magazine and they had an appetizer that consisted of thinly shaved asparagus, tossed with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, perched atop crostini and ricotta. It looked beautiful, a lovely spring starter that would be different than the usual fare. Sadly, ricotta is not a favorite, especially with my father, so I decided to adapt it a bit. I was entertaining some friends and my family was also coming for dinner, and I wasn't sure about my company's stand on ricotta, so I opted for cream cheese. As I shaved the asparagus, I thought perhaps I should toss it with the olive oil and salt and pepper first, then put it on top of the crostini. As I drizzled in the olive oil, I spied a lemon on the counter. Some sort of synapses occurred in my brain and I zested the lemon and tossed it and a squeeze of juice with the asparagus.

I piled it on a bit of bread to see how it tasted. Wonderful. The tangy lemon was so sassy with the cool cream cheese. The asparagus added just another layer of textures to the mix in its own special way. This appetizer is one that you and your friends will remember. It is surprisingly good. Even those who are not fans of asparagus will be pleasantly surprised. An added bonus: The vinaigrette is great on steamed asparagus, or tossed with pasta, rotisserie chicken and asparagus tips!

Asparagus salad on crostini

1 baguette
6 oz cream cheese
2 lbs. asparagus

Vinaigrette
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 lemon
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon pepper

Slice baguette into 1/2 inch pieces and bake at 350 until crunchy, turning once. Meanwhile, whisk the vinaigrette together in a non reactive bowl. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Wash the asparagus and shave the stalks with a vegetable peeler (reserve the tips for another use). Toss with vinaigrette and set aside. When toasts have cooled, spread them with cream cheese and top with asparagus salad.
Makes about 30.

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