Vegetables

Warm, tender (thoroughly cooked!) asparagus is a simple, wonderful pleasure

Maximo Bistro's asparagus with hollandaise and pea puree

If you've never had properly cooked asparagus, you're missing out on something wonderful indeed.

I was reminded of its simple and irrefutable pleasure on a recent trip to Mexico City, over lunch at Máximo Bistrot Local, Eduardo García's glammy restaurant in the Colonia Roma neighborhood. I chose as a starter "espárragos, holandesa, ajo tostado," and loved what was set before me: fat, jumbo asparagus, beautifully trimmed and peeled nearly to the tips, poached to almost custardy tenderness and served with luscious, lightly lemony and perfect hollandaise sauce on one side and silky, buttery pea purée on the other. 

Classic hollandaise for me is a luxury (maybe it's time to rediscover its joys in a post!), but the real revelation on that plate was this: So many professional kitchens send asparagus spears to the table undercooked that if you're accustomed to eating it in restaurants, it's entirely possible you've never experienced how luscious it can be.

(Meanwhile, Máximo chef-owner Eduardo García has a pretty amazing cook-busting-borders story.)

Undercooked asparagus, crunchy and forbidding, can taste like a punishment. But if you simmer asparagus long enough to cook it through, its texture becomes soft and almost creamy, and its lovely flavor comes into full bloom.

 

It's worth taking the time to peel it first. First trim off the woody end of the stalk, then use a vegetable peeler to (gently, so you don't break the stalk) peel it about two thirds of the way up to the tip. I find that letting the spear rest flat on the cutting board and using only very gentle pressure to peel gets the job done most easily. 

Set a pan of salted water to a boil, add the asparagus and cook, covered, until the spears are tender. How long this will take depends on their thickness. Medium-thin to medium spears will take about 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 minutes, jumbos a bit longer.

But rather than time them, I lift them gently with tongs, and when they're just a bit floppy, like this:

 

. . . I pull them out.

Then I might serve them warm, letting a small pat of butter melt over them first if that's my mood, or leaving them plain if I'm going lo-cal.

If you know your way around a kitchen, you won't need an actual recipe for this, but in case you do, here you go:

Once you discover or rediscover this simple pleasure, you'll probably want to branch out. You can prepare the spears this way, skip the butter, pour a vinaigrette over them and serve them either warmish or room temp. You can also shock them in cold water, chill them, then dress in vinaigrette later. For the vinaigrette, I might go one of four ways: simple vinaigrette with a little Dijon mustard; the same boosted with a dab of anchovy paste; dressed in a simple vinaigrette then garnished with crushed pink peppers; or dressed in a shallot vinaigrette.

Last spring, I became obsessed with gribiche, which continues to show up on fashionable restaurant menus. Whether you make a classic version or a more modern one (like the new-wave one shown below), it's spectacular on poached asparagus. 

 

Of course there's an exception to the thorough cooking idea: Shaved raw asparagus can be wonderful in salads or as a garnish on fish or chicken dishes. But when you do choose to cook them, the lesson of thorough cooking holds for other methods besides poaching: stir-frying, roasting or grilling. (Lots of people steam asparagus, but it's not a method I love for this veg.) In any case, if you cook them past that hard, green-tasting crunchiness, they're so much nicer. 

Want more asparagus ideas? Here are a million, more or less. 

Isn't this the greatest season?!

 

 

 

Quick, summery bok choy-and-radish kimchi is the perfect intro to Korean cooking

Korean cooking is one of the hottest trends out there now – in more ways than one. (Yep, this food can be spicy!) Not only are chefs all over the country using Korean techniques and ingredients and riffing on Korean dishes, but Korean cookbooks are being published left and right. 

Lately I've been cooking from three new ones. Robin Ha's Cook Korean!: A Coming Book With Recipes has been making a splash (and I just finished putting up a traditional cabbage kimchi from that book). 

And there's Koreatown: A Cookbook by Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard – I'll be testing a recipe from that one later this week. 

In the meantime, I made one dish I think you'll love – a light, summery bok choy and radish kimchi that's quick and easy to make. It's the perfect introduction to Korean cooking. And maybe the perfect introduction to Korean eating, as well – Wylie's friend Michelle, who had never tasted Korean food, loved it. 

The recipe comes from K Food: Korean Home Cooking and Street Food by Da-Hae and Gareth West, a British couple. Los Angeles Times food editor Amy Scattergood recently featured it as Cookbook of the Week. "This is the first non-traditional kimchi that Gareth and I ever made," the authors write in the headnote. "The juicy, crunchy bok choy and radishes make it feel fresh, light and summer – quite different from the typical cabbage kimchi."

Sold! I had to try it.

It's a good introduction to basic kimchi prep. First you trim, wash and brine the bok choy and radishes. The brine is just a mix of salt and sugar you toss the vegetables in, and let them sit for half an hour. Meanwhile, you make a "glue" – a spicy kimchi base you then rub all over the veg. Following the instructions as published, though, I didn't have nearly enough glue to rub all over the copious amount of bok choy, so in my adaptation, I upped the yield of the glue by fifty percent. It's a lot of bok choy when it's raw, but it shrinks way down, and you'll be happy to have lots.

Another little issue: The instructions say that you can eat it immediately, but that it's "best after it has had 3 or 4 days at room temperature to ferment," after which you can store it in the refrigerator. Unfortunately, no instructions were provided on how to do that. I will figure that out later, and let you know. 

Meanwhile, It's really good, so I wanted you to have it right away. I tasted it immediately, as soon as I was done rubbing the ingredients all over – good. Then I covered it in plastic wrap and let it sit overnight in the fridge. The next day it was really good. Refreshing, spicy, fun and yes – ideal for summer. I think you'll love it. Do let us know!

 

Fall in love with the most versatile warm summer salad in the universe

Are you a friend of okra? If so, you'll love this warm summer salad or summer squash, sweet cherry tomatoes, grilled corn and grilled okra. 

Are you anti-okra? You, too, will love this warm summer salad: That's because you can leave simply leave it out. Add grilled eggplant. Or some cooked black beans. Or fresh green garbanzos, if you score them at the market and you're wondering what to do with them.

I'm calling it a warm summer salad because I conceived it to be eaten warm. But it's also great at room temp. Or even straight out of the fridge the next day. 

It may be the most versatile warm salad in the universe.

It's great with cheese crumbled on – queso fresco or cotija, for a Mexican or modern Tex-Mex feel. Feta gives it a Greek accent. Shaved ricotta salata spins it Italian, especially if you make it with basil. Try cilantro, if you want to be more Mexican, or parsley for more Greek. Or mint. It's a salad without borders.

 

Leaving off the cheese sacrifices nothing – and makes it vegan.

It's fabulous as a starter or main course salad on its own. Serve it next to or under some grilled fish or chicken or lamb (or beef or pork or tofu . . . ) and you've got a gorgeous, cheffy main course. 

See what I mean? It's versatile. 

Don't feel like grilling the corn? Don't worry – just cut it raw off the cob and toss it in with the squash. Want to use more of one vegetable and less of another? Go ahead – it's a free country. Use balsamic or red wine vinegar in place of the sherry vinegar if you like. Throw in a handful of toasted pine nuts, or a spoonful of leftover basil. Serve it on a bed of quinoa or lentils or arugula. Or toss some arugula or microgreens on top. 

It's your salad. Now go for it.

A million delicious ways to put asparagus on your springtime table (including some new ones!)

Goodbye, Brussels sprouts. Hello, asparagus – springtime's A-list vegetable.

Of course fava beans, English peas and artichokes rock the season as well, but asparagus stands apart, as it's so abundant and easy to get along with. If asparagus were as expensive as it was once upon a time, we'd likely celebrate it as a luxury, up there with morels and ramps and fiddlehead ferns. But it's not – which is why it finds a starring role on my table several times a week when it's in season.

There are a million delicious things you can do with it, from steaming to roasting to grilling to braising, sautéeing or stir-frying – even shaving the stalks with a peeler and adding them raw to a salad.

Most traditional is steaming it – in one of those upright baskets. I've never owned one; instead I trim the ends, use a vegetable peeler to peel the stalks halfway up or more, lay them flat in a wide pan and simmer them in salted water. After draining the stalks well, you can dress them in butter and serve them warm or send them to the table with a fluffy, lemony hollandaise. Or dress them in vinaigrette (that's lovely served warm, at room temp or chilled). Or keep them naked, chill 'em and serve with mayo. 

Easiest is roasting asparagus. A turn in the oven gives it a completely different character, no less delicious. Just snap off the tough bottoms or trim them with a knife, lay them on a baking sheet with a teaspoon or so of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, roll the stalks around to coat them, and roast for 17 minutes (for stalks of medium thickness) at 400 degrees F.

Grilling is nearly as easy: Brush the stalks or roll them around in a little olive oil, sprinkle with salt, toss them on the grill or a hot grill pan and cook until they're just tender.

One mistake people (including home cooks and many a restaurant) often make: undercooking them. They shouldn't be crunchy; they need to be tender. How to know when they're done? Use tongs to lift them up by the middle of the stalk. When they're done, they'll droop a bit on either side. 

Roasted asparagus and radishes from Steven Satterfield's Root to Leaf cookbook

Last spring I fell in love with Steven Satterfield's recipe for roasted asparagus with green garlic and radishes, from his then-just-published cookbook Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons. I haven't been able to find green garlic where I live in North Texas, so used regular garlic, Satterfield's suggested substitution. Simple and fabulous, the dish instantly became a regular player in my spring repertoire. Best of all, it's so easy to put together you don't even really need the recipe: Just cut the asparagus into 1 1/2-inch lengths, cut the radishes into quarters and toss both in a bowl with a little olive oil, finely chopped garlic, salt and pepper. Spread them on a baking sheet, baking dish or roasting pan and roast in a 400 degree oven till they're just tender, about 15 minutes. Want more specifics? Here's the adapted recipe:

Last weekend I fell in love again: With a technique for braising asparagus in butter I gleaned from a recent story and recipe in the New York Times by David Tanis. 

Butter-braised asparagus with herbs

The technique is brilliant: Place asparagus spears flat in a pan with a good deal of butter and a little water, salt and pepper; cover the pan and cook till the asparagus is just tender. Remove the asparagus and reduce the cooking liquid to nice sauce. Tanis adds lemon zest, lemon juice and chopped herbs, then garnishes the dish with herb leaves. It was super, though I had to tweak the recipe a bit (mine needed more liquid and longer in the pan; I added more water and a little more butter. I'll add an adapted recipe here once have time to retest it (watch this space!). In any case, butter-braising gives the asparagus a rich and luxurious silkiness and this too will become a go-to treatment chez moi. I love the lemon and herb flavors with it, but it should be great without them, too.

Meanwhile, in case you're wondering about the photo that leads off this post, that's a salad of shaved raw asparagus, sautéed asparagus and black lentils from Michael Anthony's V is for Vegetables, which just won a James Beard Foundation Book Award in the category of Vegetable Focused and Vegetarian. Again, this recipe needed some adjustments (more acid in the dressing, for one thing), but it's pretty swell, so I'll tweak and provide an adaptation soon! (I was wowed last fall by Anthony's cooking at Untitled at the Whitney Museum in New York City, so was excited to cook from his book). 

Asparagus with new-wave gribiche

Are you still with me? I want you to have all these asparagus ideas and recipes in one place. Another great way to serve asparagus is with sauce gribiche, whether the new-wave version shown in the photo above, or a slightly more traditional one. Just simmer the stalks in salted water, roast or grill them (as explained earlier in this post), and dress with the gribiche of your choice. Here's the new-wave gribiche recipe:

And here's an adaptation of Judy Rodger's four-minute egg gribiche from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

Just one more direction, and it's a good one: Stir-fry asparagus Chinese-style. I wrote about this version adapted from Lucky Peach 101 Easy Asian Recipes in mid-February, when springtime was still a dream away.

I know you want the recipe. Here you go:

Now let's get cooking!

 

 

 

 

Artichoke vinaigrette: an easy, elegant, French (and vegan! and healthy! and make-ahead!) appetizer

Growing up in California, I took fresh artichokes for granted. After all, Castroville – the town that bills itself as "the artichoke capital of the world" – is right there in the central coastal part of the state, not far from Monterey. I used to love stopping there on road trips and seeing the giant concrete artichoke sculpture that greets you at the edge of town.

In the spring and summertime, my mom always steamed artichokes and served them as an appetizer with melted butter to dip the leaves in. I love them even more dipped in mayo, or a mustardy red wine vinaigrette. Wylie loves it with balsamic vinaigrette.

A classic French way to serve artichokes is  à la vinaigrette – that is, actually dressed in the vinaigrette; shallot vinaigrette suits them particularly well. Pouring the sauce over them while they're still warm lets the vinaigrette penetrate the leaves – no additional dipping sauce required. An artichoke vinaigrette is also pretty beautiful. It's great as a sit-down starter at a dinner party or as a sharable treat before the dinner gets started. 

A few years ago, I served boiled artichokes as an appetizer to new friends in Texas, and was surprised that they found them exotic. "How do you eat them?" they asked. We showed them how to pull off a leaf, dip it in sauce, scrape off the meaty part (closest to the crown) with your teeth and discard the rest of the leaf. When all the leaves are gone and only the thin, prickly ones at the heart remain, you pull those off, scrape the fuzz off the crown with a spoon, and eat the heart  – the prize! – which is also delicious dipped in mayo or vinaigrette.

 

Many cooks boil artichokes rather than steaming them. I've prepared them both ways, and find that boiling them in plenty of salted water gives them the best texture. Acidulating the water with lemon juice (as some cooks do to prevent discoloration) is unnecessary; I find the results to be the same with unacidulated water. Instead, after I trim them, I simply rub the cut surfaces with half a lemon.

For a party of four to eight, I often make two artichokes and serve it with another app or two. For a dinner party, you can serve one per person, or for a more casual dinner, one for every two to share.

So, how to trim them? You can get all fancy, and remove the chokes if you want to, but I usually don't. 

Once you do it once or twice, it's easy. Using a sharp serrated knife, slice off the stem, creating a flat surface for the artichoke to rest on. Then slice off the top straight across – removing the tops of the inner few rows of leaves. Next use your fingers to break off the tough row or two of small leaves around the bottom.

 

Finally, use kitchen scissors to snip off any remaining leaf tips (be careful – there's a prickle at the top of each). Rub the cut surfaces with half a lemon and they're ready to cook.

Boil them in lots of salted water in a covered pot. Don't worry if they bob up to the top; flip them over with a spoon once or twice so they cook evenly. While they're cooking, whisk together the vinaigrette. 

Drain the artichokes upside down, then dress them with the vinaigrette. Voilá. Easy, chic, delicious and healthy. And there are a couple of bonuses: You can serve them warm, or make them ahead, serving them chilled or at room temperature. And . . . they're vegan!

Ready to try? Here you go!

 

 

Bring on the eggs, hold the carbs: Introducing the best Caesar salad ever

I make a lot of Caesar salads, always have. I love them for their crunch, for their garlicky-anchovy-Parmesan wonderfulness. 

Wylie has loved them since he was a wee toddler, and I converted many of his childhood friends to salad eaters by persuading them to taste my Caesar. Not that it was so special – it was really a minimalist one. I never felt croutons were worth the effort or calories (unless my brother Johnny makes them; then they're totally and one hundred percent worth it!). So I do without croutons. And for eons, I've done without the traditional coddled egg – just because Caesar was my quick go-to starter, and who wanted to coddle an egg? 

But lately I've been thinking my Caesar could use an upgrade. No, not grilled chicken. (Horrors!) And I've never met a Caesar made with white anchovies I'd loved, so I'd stick with the salt-cured ones. In fact, very few futzed-with Caesars I've tasted have bettered a traditional one. 

Still, I kept thinking I could improve it. 

Got it! I'd bring back the egg, but instead of having one coddled egg that got so thoroughly mixed in no one would notice it, I'd use two gorgeously coddled eggs that you would very much notice, sort of broken into pieces so you could see and taste a just-starting to set golden gelatinous yolk here, a bit of white there. And I though a bit of lemon zest – an interloper, as it wasn't in the original Caesar recipe – would sing with the freshly grated Parmesan. 

CaesarBeforeMixing.jpg

I tossed it up, breaking up the egg but not completely. Garnished it with extra parm and lemon zest, a few extra grindings of fresh black pepper. Oh, baby – it turned out pretty great.

 

You might say it's not legit, as it does without the croutons. You can add some if you like. But in my world, the less white bread, the better, and I don't miss it. OK, here goes. I'm saying it officially here: This is my new Caesar. Try it! And tell us how you like it.

Celebrate spring with a sugar-snap pea salad with lemon and parmesan

Spring is here – officially, anyway. In my hometown, Los Angeles, that means asparagus and fabulous strawberries and English peas, favas, nettles and morels. Where I live now, in North Texas, it means tornados and thunderstorms and hail. English peas? Not so much. 

I do find nice asparagus in the market, and good sugar snap peas – which I love to blanch lightly, slice up and toss in a lemony vinaigrette with snipped chives and grated parm. It was inspired by a salad I fell in love with a couple years ago over lunch with my girlfriend An-My at ABC Kitchen in New York. 

There's really not much to it. It takes a little while to slice up all the sugar snaps; after that, it comes together in a flash. I'm thinking it would be really nice served with frico, those lacy Italian parmesan crisps. (Remind me to scare up a recipe for them sometime soon!) 

Anyway, it's a lovely starter on its own.  Even if it's stormy outside, at your table it will feel like spring. Here's the recipe:

Sauce gribiche makes every simple thing you cook instantly delicious

Seared barramundi with gribiche

How about an easy-to-make sauce that can turn the simplest grilled fish into a dazzling dinner party dish? Or that can dress up boiled or roasted asparagus? Or that you can add to sliced boiled potatoes to turn them into the snazziest potato salad ever?

That's the beauty of sauce gribiche: It can make every simple old thing deliciously new again. 

Poached leeks. Poached chicken. Boiled shrimp. Cold cracked crab. Fried or pan-fried soft shell crabs. Steamed mussels. Thick roasted slices of cauliflower. Sliced rare roast beef or lamb or ham. The possibilities are, you know, endless.

Traditional sauce gribiche is a mayonnaise made with hard-boiled egg yolks instead of raw ones, dressed up with herbs, capers and cornichons. (It's French, which is why it's called "sauce gribiche" instead of "gribiche sauce.") That old-style version is just as tedious to make as mayo, too, as you have to dribble in the oil while you constantly whisk, being careful not to let it "break." (Don't worry, though: Our new-wave version is super easy!)

The traditional style of gribiche bears little resemblance visually to the new-wave versions turning up in restaurants these days, though the ingredients are the same. The reason? Instead of whisking the ingredients into an emulsion, you quickly stir everything together. Using soft-boiled eggs instead of hard-boiled ones, and lots of herbs, brings it irresistibly into the 21st century in terms of looks and taste. 

Grilled jumbo asparagus with gribiche and bottarga from Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California

I stumbled on one as I flipped through Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California – the new book from chef Travis Lett. Lett uses it to sauce jumbo asparagus that he first parboils, then grills; the dish is finished with lots of grated bottarga, dried cured mullet roe. I love bottarga, and I happened to have some in my fridge, so I made it – and loved it. (Note: in case you happen to make it, boil the asparagus longer than he tells you, or it will be crunchy-hard. Also, I substituted panko for the garlic crouton crumbs that added a bunch of extra steps to his recipe, and the panko worked great.) But bottarga is hard to come by, and it's expensive, so before I added it to the dish, I tasted it without. Good, but not great. It wanted a little more zing. I decided to develop a recipe that would be zingy enough to jazz up simple, plain food without the help of bottarga. 

I pretty quickly hit upon the answer: cornichons. Traditional gribiches include them, yet Gjelina's did without them (probably they would taste weird with the bottarga). Adding them did the trick: It was much more vibrant. I made a batch and tried that on asparagus I cooked simmered in salted water till tender:

Asparagus with new-wave gribiche

Bingo! This was perfect! I also used it to sauce barramundi, a delicately flavored fish with nice body. I did nothing fancier than put salt and freshly ground black pepper on the fish, and seared it gently in a little olive oil. Wow – it was really good, something I'd happily serve at a dinner party. 

Want to try it? Here's the recipe:

Seared barramundi with new-wave sauce gribiche

I didn't stop there. I also found a version in one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, Judy Rodgers' The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. I'll tell you about that – and more about gribiche – in my next post!