In the Kitchen: Asparagus

After the winter that seemingly never ends, I’m ready for spring—and this year I cheated a little! I had to have something fresh before there was anything in the garden, and asparagus was the answer. 

Asparagus displays in grocery stores are a sign of the impending arrival of spring in Kansas City. The asparagus might be from California, or more likely Mexico if it’s really early, but if you know what to look for you can certainly find good quality specimens for your kitchen. How do you pick great asparagus? First, if it is stored standing up in water, it’s a sign that the grocery store cares. Next, look at the tips and the base: the tips should be tight (they open when the plant is too mature) and the base should not be discolored or shriveled. Shriveling is especially telling of asparagus that is not fresh, or that has been mishandled at some point. Just walk away from the shriveled asparagus. Size is—as in most things in life—a matter of preference. Skinny, pencil-sized asparagus usually doesn’t need peeling (and tends to have a more intense flavor); the larger and jumbo-sized spears generally do need peeling, especially at the base. The base/bottom inch or so of any size asparagus can be a little tough and woody, so I always bend it close to the base, and it should snap where the woodiness stops. The tough bits and peelings can be used to make a broth or soup base, so don’t feel guilty about removing them from your dish.

Asparagus is extremely versatile, but it does have certain affinities to consider when pairing it with other foods. Asparagus, eggs, green onions, and some type of pork (like prosciutto or bacon) are the best of friends. In the springtime this is my no-thought, little-prep breakfast of choice: asparagus sautéed with green onions and bacon, finished in a loose scramble of eggs, served on toast. Truly delicious. But those flavors translate easily to many dishes—like this one—and should become a part of your spring repertoire.

Asparagus with Scallions, Bacon and Fregula

This side dish easily translates to a hearty lunch or light dinner. Just add a protein, such as cooked, diced chicken or a sunny-side-up egg for each diner. Fregula (or fregola) is a small round toasted pasta from Sardinia, available in stores with a focus on better Italian products, like Bella Napoli in Brookside. For the pork averse, substitute a few anchovies in place of the bacon, or just omit it entirely. It will still be delicious.

Per person, prepare a generous fist-full of asparagus as one would, snapping off the tough ends and peeling the bottom two inches or so. Slice the asparagus on the diagonal at half-inch lengths. Cut a few scallions on the bias in quarter-inch lengths. Boil some fregula—about a third cup per person—in salted water with a bay leaf and a splash of extra-virgin olive oil for about eight minutes and drain.

In a skillet, sauté some bacon or prosciutto cut in quarter-inch bits until it begins to render a little fat. Add the asparagus and a splash of water and cover the skillet with a lid. After a few minutes, remove the lid and add the scallions and fregula (or other cooked starch*) and sauté for a minute until all of the excess moisture has cooked off. If you’re feeling decadent, add a knob of butter or another splash of olive oil. Serve warm. (If you wanted to make this a salad, serve it at room temperature with a generous drizzle of good wine vinegar or lemon juice).

*Note: Any number of starches and grains could be used in this flavor combination. Rices, freekeh, orzo pasta, couscous, farro or barley, wheat berries, toasted bread cubes, even coarsely mashed potatoes would be wonderful.

In Your Pantry

Orzo  Not a grain, but a pasta shaped like a grain made from durum-wheat semolina flour. It is quick-cooking and has a wonderful texture and mouthfeel. Try it mixed with beans, simply flavored with rosemary. It is delicious replacement for rice and as a vehicle for the savory juices of roasting meats. Available from many grocers in the pasta section of the store.   

Pearled Couscous  Not the tiny quick-cooking grain “couscous,” but technically a pasta made from durum-wheat semolina. Also called Israeli couscous, it originated in Israel in the 1950s during a rice shortage. It is almost indistinguishable from Sardinian fregula and is frequently used as a garnish for seafood stews and salads with steamed calamari, shrimp, and seasonal vegetables, simply dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. You can toast it in a skillet before cooking to give it added complexity. Available at larger grocery stores.   

Farro  The Italian cousin of barley, farro is a texturally robust and flavorful grain, also of the wheat family. Treat it as you would any whole grain. After cooking, finish it with butter and cheese like risotto, or make it into a wonderful room-temperature salad with vegetables, your favorite protein, and a dressing of good wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil.

Freekeh  This will become your new favorite go-to grain. Freekeh is green wheat that has been dried and toasted, an ancient tradition in the Middle East. It can serve the same role as rice or pasta in a meal, but for the health conscious, it has a much lower glycemic index and is considered one of the “super grains,” loaded with minerals and extremely high in fiber. But really, it’s just delicious. Find it in the Health Market section of Hy-Vee or stores specializing in Middle Eastern ingredients.

Fregula  Also known as fregola or Sa Fregula Sarda, this Sardinian pasta is a complex version of pearled couscous. Semolina flour is sprinkled with water and made into tiny balls of dough. It’s then toasted, enhancing it with a nutty quality you might not experience otherwise. Delicious and versatile. Try it with tomato sauce and clams or other seafood. Available at Bella Napoli in Brookside.

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