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Signs of Spring

April 15, 2010 By:
Eileen Goltz, Jewish Exponent Feature
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SLICE OF LIFE

For me, the official marker of spring is when the price of asparagus falls below $1 a pound, and strawberries are the size of golf balls, yet cost less than a round of golf. With the chill of winter now a distant memory, it might be a good time to look at our friends the strawberry and asparagus.

First, let's look at asparagus. There are three colors of asparagus generally available to the springtime shopper: green, white and purple. Green is the most commonly available, and the kind that most of us buy. Choose asparagus that is bright-green with closed firm tips. If the tips are slightly wilted, you can perk them up by cutting off a little bit of the stem and then soaking them in cold water.

Asparagus is rich in vitamins A and C, has tons of iron and lots of fiber, so you can see why it's so good for you. White asparagus is just green asparagus that's been grown in the dark, so no chlorophyll develops and the spears are white. It has a slightly smoother taste than green asparagus. Purple asparagus is green or white with a tinge of purple on the tips. It tastes the same as regular green asparagus, but usually cost quite a bit more.

Strawberries are as good for you as asparagus; they are rich in vitamins B and C, and contain potassium, iron and fiber. While you can purchase strawberries pretty much year-round, for my money, the best-looking and tasting berries are available in the spring and early summer. Look for strawberries that are plump, firm, bright-red, and don't have any white or green near the stem. They should also be bruise-free and mush-free.

Make sure you check all the sides of the berry container before you buy to make sure it isn't hiding a moldy berry or two. Mold spreads very fast and can ruin an entire carton of berries in a day or two. Generally speaking, even though the larger berries may look beautiful, they typically are not as sweet or flavorful as medium-size berries, so choose accordingly.

You should use your strawberries a day or two after bringing them home, but don't cut off the stems until just before eating because strawberries are usually picked before they are fully ripe. They don't ripen any further after they are picked, they just get softer, and cutting off the stem just speeds up that process.

The following recipes are spring-friendly and guaranteed to have everyone asking you to run back to the market for more.

Asian Chicken and Asparagus
(Meat)

1 lb. asparagus, cut into bite-size pieces 
11/2 to 2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken 
1 red or green bell pepper, thinly sliced 
1 can sliced water chestnuts, drained 
1 English cucumber, sliced 
2 Tbsps. oil 
2 Tbsps. sesame oil 
1 onion, sliced 
1/4 tsp. pepper 
2 Tbsps. honey 
2 Tbsps. soy sauce 
toasted sesame seeds

Heat the oil in a wok or skillet.

Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces and stir-fry until just done. Remove the chicken from the wok and set it aside, but don't clean the pan.

Add the onion, bell pepper, pepper and honey and cook, stirring until the vegetables are cooked but still tender. Add the asparagus and the chicken to the pan. Sprinkle with soy sauce and cover. Cook at a simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the sliced cucumber, stir to combine and cook at a simmer for an additional 5 to 7 minutes.

Place in a serving dish and sprinkle the top with the sesame seeds.

Serves 6 to 8.

Asparagus Wontons
(Pareve)

30 wonton wrappers 
8-10 stalks of asparagus, chopped 
2 tsps. minced garlic 
1 medium onion, chopped 
teriyaki or soy sauce to taste 
2-3 Tbsps. sesame oil

In a bowl, combine the garlic, asparagus and onion.

Sauté the mixture in the sesame oil for about 10 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Add the teriyaki or soy sauce to taste. Mix to combine.

Spoon a small amount of asparagus filling onto the center of one wonton. Brush the edges with water, and take another wonton and place it on top. Seal the two by using a fork to press the edges together.

Heat the sesame oil in skillet, and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes on each side until golden. Serve immediately. You can dip them in soy or teriyaki sauce.

Serves 4.

Swiss Cheese, Tomato and Asparagus Tart
(Dairy)

Recipe modified from the Pepperidge Farm Web site.

flour, for work surface 
1 puff pastry sheet, thawed 
3 roma tomatoes, sliced and seeded 
2 cups shredded Swiss cheese 
11/2 lbs. asparagus, trimmed 
2-3 Tbsps. Parmesan cheese 
1 Tbsp. olive oil 
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400°.

On a floured surface, roll the puff pastry into a rectangle.

Place the pastry on a baking sheet. (I always put parchment paper down first for this.)

With a sharp knife, mark about 1 inch in from the edges of rectangle to use as a guide when it's cooked. Use a fork to poke the pastry inside the marked rectangle about 6 or 7 times. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes.

Immediately remove the pastry from the oven, and sprinkle the inside rectangle with the Swiss cheese.

Place the asparagus crosswise inside the tart shell; arrange in a single layer, alternating with ends and tips. Place the tomato slices over the top of the asparagus.

Brush the top of the tomatoes and asparagus with the oil.

Season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle the Parmesan on top.

Bake until spears are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Strawberry Muffins
(Dairy)

Modified from the Totally Strawberries cookbook

2 eggs 
2/3 cup sugar 
1/2 cup milk 
1/4 cup vanilla or plain yogurt 
1 tsp. vanilla 
1/2 stick butter, melted and cooled 
2 cups flour 
1 Tbsp. baking powder 
1/4 tsp. salt 
1/4 tsp. cinnamon 
11/2 cups strawberries, hulled and cut in chunks

Preheat oven to 375°.

Grease muffin tins or line with paper cups.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar until light.

Add the milk, yogurt, vanilla and melted butter. Gently whisk.

In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Add to milk mixture and stir just until flour disappears.

Gently stir in berries.

Spoon thick batter into muffin cups to the top.

Bake about 25 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean.

Invert and cool on a wire rack.

Serves 12.

Strawberry Vinaigrette
(Pareve)

1 cup fresh strawberries, washed and hulled 
1/4 cup rice-wine vinegar 
1 tsp. sugar 
1 cup oil 
2 tsps. poppy seeds (optional)

Blend all ingredients in a blender or food processor; process until smooth.

Add the poppy seeds, if using, and process for 1 or 2 seconds.

Makes 2 cups.

Eileen Goltz is a freelancer food writer and the author Perfectly Pareve. E-mail her at:ztlog@verizon.net.

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