Tag Archives: local food

Canadiana, Part IV: Asparagus


July 2022.

This year, May arrived suddenly, without fanfare, but with enough warmth for bare arms. Like many prairie gardeners relieved to finally – and abruptly – exit winter, I spent the sunny first day of the month cleaning up my garden beds.

To my delight, I found furled red knobs in the rhubarb patch, and sprigs of chives and green onions taking in the sun. As I raked and tidied and turned the compost, I mourned again the lost pop-up springtime bravery of my asparagus bed – the 2011 flood that had surrounded our home took my garden, the garden my mom and grandmother had planted and tended for decades.

These days, the asparagus patch, black currants, strawberries, and raspberry canes are buried beneath the berm that surrounds and protects our house. I now garden in raised beds and containers, which pose a whole new set of challenges in extremely hot and dry summers such as last year’s. Maybe this year, if my time and energy allows, I’ll dig a new bed, banish the quackgrass, and plant some asparagus crowns.

In the meantime, I wait patiently for local asparagus to arrive at the farmer’s market.

Asparagus is not a good keeper, so cook it the same day as you buy it. If it has to wait in the fridge for a day or two, stand it upright in a shallow glass of water. Prior to cooking, thick spears may require peeling, but thin stalks do not. Just bend the bottom ends, and they will snap off where the stalks turn fibrous.

Simultaneously grassy and sulphurous, asparagus stalks are a great finger food, and deserving of their own course at the table. Let everything else wait while you enjoy them – their season is so short, so sweet. How to dress up your spring fling is up to you and the degree of flash you want to inspire. Here are a few suggestions.

Instead of steaming, try roasting or grilling asparagus. Pop them onto a hot grill, and turn several times. They just take minutes, so don’t go far!  Oven-roasting – a single layer on a parchment-lined tray – is almost as quick in a very hot oven. In either case, oil lightly before cooking, then season with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of lemon juice as soon as they emerge from the heat.

For high flash value that’s good with champagne or a grassy Sauvignon Blanc as party food, wrap raw asparagus spears individually in slices of prosciutto. Up your game by adding a smudge of Boursin, herbed goat cheese, or a thin slice of Jarlsberg inside the packets before you roll them up. Roast quickly in a single layer in a hot oven. Drizzle with lemon juice just before serving.

Asparagus has a natural affinity for butter and eggs – what doesn’t? – and the licorice notes of tarragon or anise seed. To keep with the finger food motif, make a tarragon-blasted Bearnaise sauce, the classic brunch accompaniment. Add poached eggs and English muffins topped with bacon or smoked salmon, and you’ll hit a home run, albeit in knife-and-fork outfielder’s territory. Or combine the flavours in a tart, quiche-style, or in an omelet.

For a simpler, quickie version, crack a pinch of anise seed in a mortar and add to browned butter along with minced chives, lemon juice and zest, and drizzle over asparagus, poached egg optional.

Other flavour matches for asparagus include smoky-salty smoked salmon or BBQ/smoked pork, and mushrooms, especially meaty, musky morels. The spears also pair well with potatoes, and high-mountain Alpine cheeses like Emmenthal, Gruyere, and Compté. Lots of possibilities with those variants!

Toasted almonds chopped and sprinkled on asparagus spears in olive oil are also delicious. If you have any meat juices left over from a succulent roast, combine it with some good chopped black Nicoise olives and a squeeze of lemon juice, then spoon the mixture over cooked asparagus. Yum. Lots of choices, so short a season. First we eat, then we tend the garden.

Asparagus with Korean Peanut Sauce

Serve this dish alone or with jasmine rice, or with grilled salmon or pork. Serves 4.

1 lb. asparagus

1/3 c. sunflower oil, divided

salt + pepper to taste

¼ c. lemon juice + zest

¼ c. orange juice + zest

1 tsp. grated ginger root

1 Tbsp. light soy

1 Tbsp. roasted sesame oil

1 Tbsp. minced cilantro or chives

hot chili paste to taste

1 c. chopped toasted peanuts

Preheat the oven to 400 F or turn on the grill to medium-high. Brush the asparagus lightly with oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Combine the remaining oil with all other ingredients except the peanuts. Cook the asparagus for 5-7 minutes, depending on thickness, turning as needed. Dress immediately with the vinaigrette and top with the nuts. Serve warm or hot.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary, Uncategorized

Grainews: First We Eat: Reasons for Cooking

On a Friday over lunch after our weekly trip to the farmer’s market, I asked Mom what her favourite desserts were. Her 82nd birthday was rolling around soon.  I’d already decided on the main course – cioppino, Mom’s favourite fish dish.  It’s a tomato-broth-based, Italian-derived fisherman’s stew that’s been part of our family’s repertoire since the mid-60s, when, Lila, Mom’s sister, moved to the San Francisco Bay area. (Simple, simple.  Make a big potful of an herb-scented tomato sauce rich with garlic, leeks and onion. Add a variety of sliced or diced fish and shellfish to the hot broth.  Frozen fish is fine.  Don’t overcook anything.  Serve with crusty bread to mop.  And napkins.)

“Cupcakes and berries with whipped cream,” Mom said in response, “or black forest cake,” (which is chocolate cake with cherries and whipped cream).  A theme had emerged.  I went home and rummaged my recipe file.  I decided on a trio, so everyone could have a choice (and more than one!): vanilla madeleines; red velvet cupcakes, devil’s food cupcakes.

Madeleines are made with a sponge cake batter. They are baked in dainty scalloped indentations, a shape meant to honour pilgrims, in a pan called a plaque. Well, pilgrims: that’s all of us, travelling through life. Muffin pans look plainer but work just fine if you don’t have the fancy scalloped pan.

When I was a little kid, Mom had shown me how to measure and sift, how to cream butter and sugar, how to shape cookies.  Later, she taught me to start spuds in cold water and green vegetables in boiling, how to roast a piece of beef, how to fry an egg.  She had no time or patience for anything fussy, but she did know the mechanics, if not the science, of cooking.

At the time, home cooking was still the norm. It should still be. I believe we owe it to ourselves to be able to feed ourselves. And we owe our kids the knowledge of how to feed themselves. It’s like swimming – a necessary life-skill. But it’s more than that: cooking gives me control over what I ingest. It’s the simplest and most effective form of control over our diets we have.

Another of the great things about being a good cook is that I can feed myself and my best beloveds.  And I don’t mean just knocking off batches of homemade granola for breakfast or tuna salad sandwiches for lunch.  Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things – in fact, they are both staples in our home.  But I mean stuff I really want to make and eat – stuff I see in restaurants or online, and think, “Hey, let’s have that for supper!” (And usually at a fraction of the cost, and without the hassle of driving to town.)  You may find cupcakes – or madeleines – at the local bakery or farmer’s market, but this is a simple dish made the better for being homemade.  One of the greatest pleasures of cooking is observing someone I care about enjoy what I have created.  And sharing the meal.  So first we eat cake.  Then we open the presents.  Happy birthday, Mom.


This is made like a sponge cake batter. Chilling the buttered pan, then the batter-filled pan, ensures a higher rise, as does baking on a preheated baking sheet.  Madeleines really are best the same day they are baked, best warm, in fact; so make and chill the batter in advance, but don’t bake them until after your main course is eaten.

Makes 12 3½” madeleines

2 T. + ½ c. melted salted butter

2 large eggs

½ c. sugar

1 t. vanilla extract

2/3 c. flour

1 t. baking powder


Brush a madeleine pan with half the 2 T. butter.  Chill and repeat.  Chill.  If you don’t have a madeleine pan (plaque), line a full-size muffin pan with parchment cups, or butter and chill a mini-muffin pan.

Beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla on high speed for 5 minutes.  Sift the flour and baking powder.  Thoroughly fold the dry ingredients and remaining butter into the egg foam. Use two spoons or a piping bag to fill the pan’s indentations with batter.  Chill for an hour.

Place a baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven, then heat the oven to 425 C.  Remove batter-filled pan from fridge and put the chilled pan on the hot baking sheet in the oven.  Bake for 8 minutes for 3 ½” madeleines; briefer for 1 ½”; about 8-15 minutes for cupcakes, depending on size.

After you take the pan from the oven, use a small knife to remove them from pan.  Invert and serve warm.  These are good with a glaze (icing sugar mixed with coffee; icing sugar and lemon or orange juice; icing sugar, vanilla extract and water) or with whipped cream and fruit compote. Do as Marcel Proust and dip them in tea the morning after.





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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary