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First harvests: Asparagus, spinach, radishes, fiddleheads — enjoy

  • Spinach and Asparagus Roulade looks fancy but it is easy to make. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Spinach Roulade with Asparagus and Mascarpone GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Spinach Roulade with Asparagus and Mascarpone GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Spinach Roulade with Asparagus and Mascarpone GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Asparagus, Arugula and Herb Pita ROBERT HOPLEY

  • Asparagus, Arugula and Herb Pita ROBERT HOPLEY

  • Asparagus, Arugula and Herb Pita ROBERT HOPLEY



For the Gazette
Friday, May 11, 2018

Despite the cold April, asparagus and rhubarb muscled themselves up through the chill soil by the end of the month. Now, herbs like chives and mint are with us, and spinach, sorrel, radish and other goodies are growing bigger every day.

These first harvests are welcomed everywhere, often with festivities such as the Valley’s asparagus suppers, and always with favorite dishes. The Italian classic pasta primavera — in English “springtime pasta” — includes any or all spring crops with asparagus often taking the starring role. In France cooks tuck sorrel into omelets or turn it into a lemony-tasting soup. In Greece spanakopita — a pie filled with spinach and feta — is beloved throughout the year, but in spring it’s rivaled by khortakopita — wild herb pie — with spinach replaced by foraged greens including chicory and arugula.

Many of these classic dishes include dairy foods because historically milk abounded in spring when cows and sheep were producing it for their newborns. To preserve some of it for later in the year, farm families turned it into butter and cheese. It made sense, then, to team these dairy foods with the newly arrived crops.

Serendipitously, spring vegetables have delectable affinities with the lushness of cream and especially the tang of cheese. Italians favor Parmesan for sprinkling on asparagus because it accents the vibrant taste. Further north, cheese sauces made with gruyere or cheddar turn it into comfort food. Salty feta is vital for the vegetable pies of Greece.

Butter is essential, too. Asparagus, spinach and other early vegetables benefit from a pat of butter, but sorrel positively demands it — and in amounts bigger than a pat — because it contains mouth-puckering oxalic acid. Butter softens the acid taste by coating the taste buds so the acid strikes enticingly rather than harshly. Cream can do the same job and is vital for sorrel soup. Creamy companions often come with rhubarb because it also zings with oxalic acid. Sugar is often added to counteract it, but while sugar brings out the flavor of rhubarb, it cannot tame its sourness as effectively as dairy foods. Add a couple of tablespoonsful of butter to rhubarb compotes and serve them with Greek yogurt or ice cream. Even better, pack your rhubarb into a buttery pie crust or tuck into other baked goods made with butter.

Local farmers markets already have the first tender crops. At Amherst’s market, Sunset Farm offers squeaky fresh spinach wintered over from last fall, sorrel, arugula, the first stalks of this year’s rhubarb, and lots of unusual herbs including Greek oregano. Old Friends Farm has packs of salad vegetables and Swiss chard. There are Asian greens, including tat choy, a skinny form of broccoli from China. It’s delicious either steamed or stir-fried. Look out also for fiddleheads. These still-coiled baby oyster ferns (botanically Matteuccia struthiopteris) look like violin scrolls, hence their name. Native to Northeastern North America, fiddleheads are free for the foraging along many river banks. You may also find them in farmers markets and in Atkins Country Market and some local supermarkets during their short May season. They taste like asparagus with hints of spinach and mushrooms. Traditionally they are served with fish, especially shad, but they taste equally good with the cheeses that go with asparagus.

For a main-dish or a side try the recipe for Fiddlehead and Mushroom Gratin that follows. Look also for the delicious Spinach Roulade with Asparagus and Mascarpone plus other ways to savor the greenery of spring.

GRATIN OF FIDDLEHEADS WITH MUSHROOMS

3 dried shitake mushrooms or pieces of dried porcini

About 30 fiddleheads

4 ounces white button mushrooms

3-4 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons cornstarch

About 1 cup milk

4 ounces grated gruyere or cheddar

3 tablespoons grated parmesan

Salt and pepper to taste

About ¾ cup grated day-old breadcrumbs

Cover the dried mushroom with half a cup of warm water and soak for an hour (or longer if more convenient).

Swish the fiddleheads in water and remove any shreds of brown skin. Drop them into a pan of boiling salted water and cook for 4 minutes after the water returns to simmering. Now drop them in a bowl of chilled water to reduce their temperature, then drain and pat dry with paper towels.

Wipe the white mushrooms clean, trim the base off the stem, slice and set aside.

Turn the oven to 350 degrees and grease a shallow quart baking dish.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a frying pan over moderate heat. Add the sliced mushrooms and sauté for a couple of minutes. Now add the fiddleheads and continue cooking for another couple of minutes, adding an additional tablespoon of butter if needed. Drain the liquid from the dried mushrooms into the pan, cover, and simmer for 3 minutes, then drain and reserve the broth. Chop the soaked mushrooms and add them to the fiddleheads and mushrooms. Put the mixture into the greased baking dish,

Make the cheese sauce by mixing the cornstarch with a quarter cup of the milk to make a smooth paste. Measure the broth and add enough milk to it to make it up to 1½ cups. Heat this, and when it reaches simmering point pour it into the cornstarch mixture stirring all the time. Return to the pan; bring back to simmering point then add the gruyère or cheddar and 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan. Season to taste with pepper and salt. Pour over the fiddleheads and mushrooms. Mix the remaining tablespoon of Parmesan with the breadcrumbs and scatter on top. Bake for 15 -20 minutes or until the top is golden.

SPINACH AND ASPARAGUS ROULADE

A slice of a roulade looks fancy because of its contrasting pinwheel of filling. This may also make them look difficult to create, but they are easy. Here Parmesan flavors the spinach mixture while asparagus flavors the creamy mascarpone filling. You could substitute Neufchatel for the mascarpone for a cheaper low-calorie option.

5 ounces spinach (about 6 loosely packed cups raw)

4 eggs, separated

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ cup milk

4 eggs, separated

¾ cup finely grated Parmesan plus extra for garnish

1 tablespoon snipped chives

A few gratings of nutmeg

15 medium-thick stalks asparagus, cooked

8 ounces mascarpone

Salt to taste

Wash the spinach, discarding any tough stems. Put the wet leaves in pan without additional water. Cover and cook over low heat for 3-4 minutes. Drain, cool and squeeze to remove as much moisture as possible. Chop and set aside.

Beat the egg whites until they form a soft cloudy mass.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line the base of a jelly-roll pan with parchment paper and grease the edges.

To make the roulade, melt the butter in a pan over low heat. Off the heat, stir in the flour a tablespoonful at a time to make a thick paste. Return to low heat and stir in half the milk. Continue stirring, adding the rest of the milk as the mixture thickens. Off the heat, beat in the egg yolks one at a time. Then mix in the spinach, ½ cup Parmesan, chives and grated nutmeg. Fold in the beaten egg whites then spread into the prepared pan. Bake in the center of the oven for 15 minutes or until the surface is slightly browned and springs back when lightly pressed. Remove the pan and run a knife around the edges to free any part that may have stuck.

Spread a clean, smooth-textured kitchen towel on the counter and invert the pan on it so the roulade falls out. Strip off the parchment paper. Now flip the edge of the towel over the long edge and roll it up so the towel is inside, where it will absorb the steam and help shape the roulade. Leave for 20 minutes or until cool.

To make the filling, cut the tips from 8 asparagus and set aside. Cut the rest of the asparagus into half-inch bits. Stir these into the mascarpone. Season lightly with salt. Now unroll the roulade and remove the kitchen towel. Spread the mascarpone mixture on the inside surface of the roulade leaving a half-inch rim uncovered. Sprinkle it with 2-3 tablespoons of Parmesan. Gently but firmly roll it up starting with the long edge. Put it on a platter seam side down. Trim a little off each end to reveal the pinwheel effect. Sprinkle the top with Parmesan and garnish with the asparagus tips. Serve at room temperature with salad or chilled asparagus.

PASTA PRIMAVERA

Restaurants often serve Pasta Primavera with summer crops such as tomatoes and red peppers, perhaps because of their dashing color. This recipe uses the green vegetables of spring to stay true to the name “primavera,” which means spring.

4 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest

3-4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1½ cups heavy cream

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pound small pasta, preferably a pretty shape such as campanelle

1 pound asparagus, tough stem ends discarded

2 large handfuls baby spinach, washed and stems trimmed

2 handfuls of arugula

2 tender sorrel leaves, stems trimmed and cut into thin strips

1 tablespoons snipped chives

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiana Reggiano, plus more for serving

A few extra arugula leaves or chopped parsley for garnish

Put a large pan with 4 quarts of water and 2 teaspoons of salt on to boil. While it is heating, make the sauce. Melt the butter in a large deep sauté pan over low heat and stir the lemon zest and juice into it. Let it bubble briefly then add the cream. Increase the heat and simmer for about 3 minutes or until the mixture is thick and reduced. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set it aside.

When the water boils, drop in the asparagus spears and let them simmer for just 2 minutes. Extract them with tongs and drop into ice water to stop the cooking. When cold dry the asparagus with paper towel. Cut into 1-inch pieces keeping the tips separate from the stem pieces.

Return the water to boiling and add the pasta. Boil according to package directions until al dente. Drain

Return the lemon-cream mixture to low heat and stir in the spinach, arugula and sorrel. When they have wilted stir in the chives, parsley and thyme. Now add the drained pasta and asparagus stem pieces. Season with salt and pepper to taste and toss gently. Finally add the asparagus tips and half a cup of the Parmigiano Reggiano. Stir over the heat for just 45 seconds. Tip into a warmed serving dish and scatter the rest of the Parmigiano Reggiano on top along with a few arugula leaves. Serve more Parmigiano Reggiano at the table.

ASPARAGUS, ARUGULA AND HERB PITA

Some Greek pies, including this one, don’t have pastry. Instead the filling includes flour that forms a firm exterior. This makes for a lighter pie. This recipe is based on khorakopita — a pie traditionally made from foraged wild greens.

1 pound (about a bunch) medium-thick asparagus

5-6 cups (loosely packed) arugula, washed

¼ cup chopped parsley

¼ cup chopped dill

2 tablespoons snipped chives

1 teaspoon chopped mint

½ cup barley or whole wheat flour

6 eggs

¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled

About ½ cup grated graviera or gruyere cheese

¼ cup grated Parmesan

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons pine nuts

Turn the oven to 350 degrees and grease an 8-inch loose bottomed cake pan or a similar sized shallow baking or pie dish.

Trim the hard ends from the asparagus. Bring a shallow pan of lightly salted water to the boil and drop the asparagus in it. Return to the boil and cook for 2 minutes then drain. When cool cut it into 1-inch lengths. Set aside a few of the tips for garnish. Put the rest in a large bowl. Roughly chop the arugula and add it along with the parsley, dill, chives and mint.

Put the barley flour in another bowl and make a well in the center. Break 2 eggs into the well and lightly whisk in the flour. Add the other eggs one at a time, stirring to form a thick batter. Thoroughly stir in the crumbled feta, grated graviera, Parmesan, a little salt (not much because the cheeses are salty), and a generous grating of pepper.

Add the vegetable and herb mixture then turn into the prepared pan or dish and smooth the surface. Sprinkle the pine-nuts on top.

Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a knife blade inserted in the center comes out clean. To serve warm, let rest for 10 minutes then remove from the pan if using a loose-bottomed one. If using a dish, serve it in wedges straight from the dish. This pita is also good at room temperature – the way it is most often served in Greece.

CHIVE AND CHEDDAR SCONES

1½ cups all-purpose flour

½ cup cake flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

4 ounces (1 stick) butter

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon dried thyme

4 ounces extra-sharp cheddar

1 egg, lightly beat

About 1 cup buttermilk or whole milk

2 tablespoons snipped chives

2 teaspoons Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment or grease it.

In a bowl thoroughly mix the all-purpose and cake flour with the baking powder, salt, and mustard or cayenne. Cut the butter in small bits and rub in until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs. Stir in the sugar, thyme and all except a tablespoon of the cheddar. Make a well in the center and add the egg and about half a cup of the buttermilk or whole milk plus the chives. Stir to mix, adding more buttermilk or milk as needed to make a firm dough. Turn it onto a floured board and pat it so it is about an inch thick. Cut or roughly shape in 2-inch circles. Place on the prepared baking sheet. Mix the last tablespoon of gruyere or cheddar with the Parmesan and sprinkle a bit on top of each scone. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until a skewer poked in the middle comes out clean.