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|Fresh asparagus - always elegant and often expensive - has been referred to as the "aristocrat of vegetables." |
But it also has a wilder side. A green spear recently was photographed bursting through a one-inch-thick section of an asphalt sidewalk in northern Japan. Wild asparagus grew there before the sidewalk was paved last fall. "I never thought we could see them again this year," a local official told Kyodo News.
Wild, or otherwise, asparagus is a favorite among cooks. The spears take well to steaming, roasting, grilling, sautéing, and stir-frying. Asparagus gets used in soups, omelets, salads, and dishes ranging from risotto to pizza. Our featured chef, Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Wash., serves grilled asparagus with hazelnut aioli and Pinot Noir syrup.
Asparagus is at its peak March through June. The vegetable comes in green and white varieties. Green is popular in the United States. Europeans savor white; it's grown under the soil and away from sunlight that would turn the stalks green.
Family tree: Member of the lily family. Relatives include the showy garden lily, grasses, and two edible cousins, onion and garlic.
History: Ancient Greeks and Egyptians ate wild asparagus. Asparagus has grown in this country since colonial times. Commercial production began here in the mid-1800s.
Health info: One cup chopped has only 33 calories, says Harvard Medical School. Asparagus provides more than two-thirds of the daily vitamin K requirement. It's rich in beta-carotene. Good source of vitamins A and C, fiber, folate, and iron.
Vital stats: California, Michigan and Washington are top producing states. California harvested 12,500 acres in 2009, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
How to cook: Chef and food writer Aliza Green, in the Field Guide to Produce (Chronicle Books, 2004), recommends tossing cooked asparagus with extra virgin olive oil and lemon. She also recommends dressing steamed asparagus with vinaigrette. Great grilled, oven-roasted, sautéed, stir-fried, micro-waved, or boiled in salted water and "shocked" in cold water to preserve green color. To prepare, grasp lower half of spear with both hands and snap; it will break at most tender point.
How to buy: Choose firm, straight, uniformly sized spears with compact and tightly formed heads. Squeeze a bunch; it should squeak if fresh. Avoid shriveled spears or those with wet, slimy or smelly tips.
| Featured EVOO Asparagus Recipes|
9702 NE 120th Place
Kirkland, WA 98034
|Holly Smith's career plans took a 180-degree turn two decades ago while she backpacked her way through Australia and New Zealand. |
Before the trip, Smith always figured she'd be a politically active lawyer. While trekking through the mountains of Australia and New Zealand, Smith asked herself repeatedly: But what do you really want to do?
Turned out she really wanted to pursue her passion for cooking.
Smith now owns the highly acclaimed Cafe Juanita, in Kirkland, Wash. Smith and her restaurant, which opened in 2000, have garnered numerous accolades and awards. She's a 2008 James Beard Foundation winner for Best Chef Northwest.
She cares most about the foods of northern Italy and her adopted home, the Pacific Northwest. She got the bug for Italian cooking in the late 1980s during a trip to Italy with her mother. They visited Florence, Sienna, Pisa, and Lake Como. She became a follower of Italian cooking legend Marcella Hazan.
Smith, 43, grew up surrounded by good food. She and her family lived a half hour north of Baltimore, in Monkton, Md. They kept a garden, growing lettuce, tomatoes, asparagus, corn and other vegetables. The family enjoyed shad roe in the spring. In the fall, Smith's parents hunted for dove, goose, and duck.
"I ate very well and very much in season," Smith says.
She also helped gather the food. Smith's parents gave their young daughter an important job during those hunting treks. "I was the bird dog who retrieved and plucked the birds," she recalls.
That first-hand experience with seasonal, quality foods shows itself today in Cafe Juanita's kitchen. Smith insists on cooking seasonally, with the finest local produce and artisan products available from the Pacific Northwest and Italy.
She's passionate about sustainable farming methods. And Smith tries to use organic products wherever possible. Almost all of the restaurant's "raw" foods on the menu - the fresh fava beans, baby beets, arugula, etc. - are organic. She frequently talks with farmers about their organic methods.
The Cafe Juanita menu changes frequently. It typically includes an eclectic mix of meats and seafood. The spring menu, for example, offers fried rabbit livers, squab breast, mussels, and roasted hazelnuts.
Smith also operates a mobile gelato cart, Poco Carretto Gelato. It serves custom-made gelato at farmers markets and special events.
Smith's earliest culinary experience involves scrambling some eggs at around age 4. Sitting on the kitchen counter, she beat the eggs and poured them into the hot frying pan.
After her fateful backpacking trip, she enrolled at the Baltimore International Culinary College. She completed an externship with Master Chef Peter Timmons in Ireland. She began her career in the Baltimore are at the Milton Inn.
She then moved to Seattle in 1993. The coast-to-coast move was a big change. "The Northwest is pretty spectacular," says Smith. She thrives on the local bounty: the wide selection of seafood, meats, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and wine. When she can find spare time, Smith likes to get outside to hike and kayak.
After her move west, Smith worked her way up through a variety of restaurants. She also took trips to Italy, where she honed her interest in the foods and flavor of Northern Italian cuisine.
She finally got a chance to assert creative control in her own kitchen in April 2000, when Cafe Juanita opened. But it was an emotional run-up in the days preceding the opening. Smith suffered from nightmares.
"I was having plane crash dreams for about a week before," she recalls. But on the actual day of the opening, Smith adds, the dreams took a U-turn.
"The plane landed."
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