Springing Green With “All Things Asparagus” and Sweet Spring Dream Cookies

“I look forward to the spring vegetables because the season is so short. Mushrooms, edible foraged herbs, wild leeks, early season asparagus.” – David Chang

“The first thing to look at is the tip of the spear or the bud. It should be tightly closed and erect, not open and droopy. The hue of green asparagus should be fresh, bright, and with no hint of yellow. White asparagus should be a clear, even, creamy color. The stalk should feel firm and the overall look should be dewy. Although asparagus, like nearly everything else, is now marketed through most of the year, it is freshest in the spring, from April to early June.” – Marcella Hazan, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992)

Spring, like life, is short.

Celebrate the sprouting of Spring with the recipes below for “All Things Asparagus”, the ultimate Spring vegetable.

For something sweet, enjoy a recipe for Drömmar Swedish “dream” cookies.

asparagus recipes

Fried Asparagus or “Asparagi fritti” (taken from The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan, 1973)

Ingredients:
12 spears of crisp, fresh asparagus
2-4 tbsp. butter
1 egg, well beaten
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
A few squeezes of fresh lemon juice

Instructions:
Snap off the bottoms of the stems of the asparagus, leaving a stalk about 4 to 5 inches long, including the tips. Remove all the tiny leaves below the tips and wash the asparagus thoroughly in cold water. Pat dry with a towel.

Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat. When the butter is melted, dip the asparagus in the beaten egg, roll it in the bread crumbs, and slide it into the skillet, doing just a few stalks at a time so that they are not crowded in the pan. Spring with salt and pepper and a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice. When the asparagus has formed a crust on one side, turn it and when it has formed a crust on the other side, transfer with a slotted spatula to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle lightly with salt and serve immediately. Serve immediately and Bon Appetito!

Cream of Asparagus Soup (taken from The Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins, 1982)

Ingredients:
4 cups chopped yellow onions
8 tbsp. sweet butter
2 quarts Chicken Stock
2 pounds asparagus
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cream of asparagus soup recipe

Instructions:
Melt butter in a large pot and simmer the onions until very soft and golden, about 15-20 minutes, stirring often.

Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, trim the tips from the asparagus and reserve.  Cut about 1 inch from the butt ends of the asparagus spears; remove the rough woody ends.  Chop spears into 1/2-inch pieces and drop into the boiling chicken stock, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 45 minutes, or until asparagus is very soft.

Purée soup in blender and return the puree to the pot, add the reserved asparagus tips, and simmer until they are tender but still firm, 5 – 10 minutes.  Stir in cream and season with salt and pepper.

Asparagus En Croute (taken from The Silver Palate Cookbook)

Ingredients:
12 slices good quality white sandwich bread
1/2 pound Jarlsberg or other Swiss-type cheese
1/2 cup prepared Dijon-style mustard
12 asparagus spears, cooked
4 tbsp. melted sweet butter

Instructions:
Roll slices of bread as thin as possible with a rolling pin; trim crusts. You will have pieces of bread 3-3 & 1/2 inches square.

Lay squares out on a work surface and cover with a damp towel for 10 minutes.

Cut cheese into fingers, more or less the size of the asparagus spears.

Spread each bread square evenly with mustard. Lay an asparagus spear and a strip of cheese on each bread square and roll up. Place seam side down on a buttered baking sheet.

Brush rolls with melted butter. Bake in the upper third of a 450 degree F oven for 10 minutes, or until brown and bubbling. Serve immediately.

Asparagus Champagne Risotto (adapted from Everyday Pasta by Giada De Laurentiis, 2007)

Ingredients:
3 cups chicken broth
12 asparagus spears, cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 shallot, finely chopped
3/4 cup Arborio rice or medium-grain rice
3/4 cup champagne
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Instructions:
In a medium saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the broth. Blanch the asparagus in the chicken broth for 2 minutes. Remove the asparagus with a slotted spoon. Set the asparagus aside and keep the chicken broth at a low simmer.

In another medium saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the shallot and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the Arborio rice and stir to coat in the butter. Continue toasting the rice, stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes more. Add the champagne and simmer until the champagne has almost evaporated, about 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the simmering broth and stir until almost completely absorbed by the rice, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking the rice, adding the broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly and allowing each addition of broth to absorb before adding the next, until the rice is tender but still firm to the bite and the mixture is creamy, about 20 minutes total. Remove from the heat.

Gently stir in the asparagus, the remaining tablespoon of butter, the Parmesan, salt, and pepper.

Drömmar (Dream Cookies) (taken from the Wall Street Journal, March 2016)

Ingredients:
7 tbsp. butter, room temperature
1/3 cup plus 1/2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 & 1/3 cups unbleached cake flour
1/2 tsp. baker’s ammonia (can substitute 1/2 tsp. baking powder plus 1/2 tsp. baking soda)
Salt

Instructions:
Beat butter, sugar, and vanilla on medium speed until light in color, about 5 minutes. Sift flour and baker’s ammonia into bowl. Beat again until just fully combined, about 30 seconds. Be careful not to over beat.

Shape dough into 20 balls and place them on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet or lightly greased sheet. Bake at 350 degree F until cookies puff and crisp but do not color, about 15 minutes. The cookies should have no, or very little, coloration and should crack slightly during cooking. Remove cookies from oven and let cool completely before eating.

A Post-Lenten Reflection on the Practice of Self-Denial

“Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind – you could call it ‘character in action.’” – Vince Lombardi (football player and coach, 1913-1970)

It has been a little over a week since I ended my 40-day chocolate and “things I like most” fast in observance of the Lenten Season – the first time I have willfully committed to “giving up” something since I entered full fledged adulthood nearly five years ago.

A tradition that I gladly embraced at the start of Ash Wednesday during my childhood years, it became significantly less appealing as the demands of adult life made the idea of giving something up seem nearly unbearable.

In fact, it was only during these last 40 days that I came to a greater realization of just how challenging the practice of self-denial is – and how much truth exists in the age-old saying that life’s most valuable lessons are best learned through times of difficulty, struggle and discomfort.

Indeed, sacrificing pleasure or desire in many ways opposes the very principles that substantiate our existence. From the man in the cave to the hunter-gatherer, our survival has largely demanded that we prioritize our interests and needs, and protect ourselves from any physical or emotional obstructions that threaten our livelihood.

In an increasingly secular world, with a culture that caters to the glorification of instant-gratification and self-aggrandizement (“if it feels good, do it!”), the idea of self-denial can seem particularly inconvenient or disruptive to a lifestyle of “personal fulfillment” that infiltrates every aspect of our existence.

Its practice, however, can be a valuable exercise in seeing ourselves not just as living creatures, but as moral beings.

English historian and novelist James Anthony Froude (1818-1894) once wrote:

“That which especially distinguishes a high order of man from a low order of man, that which constitutes human goodness, human nobleness, is surely not the degree of enlightenment with which men pursue their own advantage; but it is self-forgetfulness; it is self-sacrifice; it is the disregard of personal pleasure, personal indulgence, personal advantage, remote or present, because some other line of conduct is more right.”

Far from being a self-preserving necessity, the value of self-sacrifice lies in its ability to give meaning to our preservation – to recognize the capacity of human beings to attain virtues that can thrust the human race forward in decency and civility.

Unlike the animalistic nature of self-indulgence and pleasure seeking, self-denial and self-discipline are conscious acts that require effort and energy, often leading us down a path of personal transformation and growth.

self-sacrifice quotesYou might even say that what separates us from our fellow living and breathing creatures – and what lies at the heart of acts of self-sacrifice – is the ability to grapple with a simple question: what is the “right” – the moral – thing to do?

Will I pursue my own happiness at the expense of others? Will I selflessly support others’ achievements without receiving acknowledgement myself? Will I be there to listen, help or support a friend or family in need when it is inconvenient for me?

The challenge of Lent – of self-denial – affords us an opportunity not only to experience an elevated existence, but to gain a more natural access to the spiritual world, whatever form we believe that world to take. It is in those brief moments, when our spirit overcomes the flesh, that we become fully aware of our humanity and can cultivate a greater awareness of our moral existence on earth.

As Scottish historical novelist and playwright Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) once wrote, “Teach self-denial and make its practice pleasure, and you can create for the world a destiny more sublime that ever issued from the brain of the wildest dreamer.”

It’s not that “giving up” something we enjoy for 40 days will transform us into virtuous beings. Or that sacrificing our temporary happiness for someone else will make the world a better place (though it might be a good start). It’s the practice and exercise – the willingness to endure a struggle and to recognize our agency – that befits the capacities of human beings to achieve a higher mode of living.

In the words of the Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing (1780-1842):

“I call that mind free, which masters the senses, which protects itself against animal appetites, which contemns pleasure and pain in comparison to its own energy, which penetrates beneath the body and recognizes its own reality and greatness, which passes life, not in asking what it shall eat or drink, but in hungering, thirsting, and seeking after righteousness.”

So often we look upon self-sacrifice as an undesirable “thing”, an experience more fitting for others that we can view admirably from a distance. And from that distance, we might subconsciously and quietly hope that we are not called away from our earthly pleasures to the higher and more uncomfortable challenge of living life as accountable human beings.

We are inclined to think of self-sacrifice as limiting, something that imprisons us, obstructing our hopes and dreams and preventing us from self-fulfillment.

But, is it not the opposite? Do we not become freer, our will more bolstered, from conquering the very confines of our nature?