If I had shown you the collected plates of our last week or so, it would have made for the most boring slideshow in the history of the world. It's been pretty much one word, four syllables, at almost every meal. 

Asparagus. Daily. There's been no complaints.

There it's been, with oozy-yolked dipper eggs to start the day, shaved into emerald-edged ribbons as a lunch salad, stir-fried with ginger, sesame and soy for dinner. When baking a cake left me with egg yolks left over, I took it as a sign and lickety-split made a herb-specked, lemon-heavy Hollandaise to drag our stalks through.

I was tempted to tell you the way I've liked it best, but it's not much of a recipe. Just a knob of butter melted in a heavy skillet and allowed to begin to brown, then stopped from going overboard by a scant pour of olive oil. In goes trimmed asparagus and another scant pour - water this time - quickly simmering/steaming the stalks to tender-crisp and setting their colour at its brightest. Once the water's bubbled away, the asparagus goes off the heat and onto a plate. There's salt and pepper to finish, along with a squeeze of lemon, an extra drop of oil and broad, lacy shavings of Parmesan. No trick to that. 

And so instead, I thought I'd tell you about a dish that has a bit more going on but shares the same quick time from counter to table. It may not be my full-stop favourite, but it's up there and gaining a following. 

It starts with a winner of a sauce - David Lebovitz's sauce gribiche. Like he says, it's one of those keep-it-in-your-back-pocket recipes that makes something kind of spectacular out of a few everyday ingredients. It's French in lineage, a loose sauce-meets-vinaigrette, with an emulsification of (cooked!) egg yolk and mustard to start, a good measure of olive oil, chopped egg, capers, cornichons and herbs. 

That was where I was heading. Then, thumbing through Canal House Cooking Volume No. 3 - the winter and spring edition from last year - I was reminded of their take on the iceberg wedge; sharp, crunchy radicchio garnished with hard-boiled eggs, scallion and crisp pancetta. It's gorgeous. Their vinaigrette and garnish shares a lot of qualities with sauce gribiche, and that's when I decided to change course and take the best from both.

This vinaigrette ends up eggier than his sauce gribiche, and the cornichons are swapped out for the fresh pungency of scallion - that's the Canal House influence at work. My only original contribution was to fleck the dressing with dried red pepper flakes, which spark here and there.

We ate it at lunch yesterday with nothing else necessary than a slice of toasted granary bread as raft for the spears. The crumb opened up to the spiky, supple dressing, and the crust afforded the dish substantial chew. Use the last of your bread for sopping up all the extra bits and dregs of dressing - be greedy with the bread, I say.

One note on the asparagus itself; you can prepare it however you prefer, but can we talk about matters of size? Go straight for the thicker stalks, the kind that almost require a fork and knife when eating with anyone aside from the closest of company. Dainty, they are not, those sturdy ones.

The fat, juicy stalks really have the most flavour, and it's their fleshy sweetness that stands up to the piquancy of this dressing best. If those spindly stems we often see are thought of as pencil-thin, the sort you'll want here are more the magic-marker variety. 

As with a traditional sauce gribiche, this vinaigrette would be happy to pal around with some boiled new potatoes or a nice bit of fish. Or, to tweak the Canal House example, I'd like it this over grilled wedges of radicchio at the next barbeque. I've got ideas of blanched green beans when they're around.

That said, I've not tried any of those suggestions. We've only gone so far as asparagus and stopped quite stubbornly there. For right now, in this asparagus season that is so quickly passing, that's far enough for me.

IMG_27252

ASPARAGUS WITH HARD-BOILED EGG VINAIGRETTE

Adapted from from Canal House Cooking and David Lebovitz, with thanks.

INGREDIENTS

  • Kosher salt
  • 2 scallions, white and light green parts separated and finely sliced
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • 2 hard boiled eggs, peeled
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/3-1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 10 capers, rinsed and dried
  • Approximately 1/8 teaspoon dried chili flakes
  • 1 handful of fresh, flat leaf parsley leaves, chopped
  • 1 pound thick asparagus, peeled if needed, trimmed and cooked to your liking

METHOD

In a small bowl, pinch together 1/8 teaspoon salt with the white part of the sliced scallions. Once the scallion begins to release some juice, stir in the red wine vinegar and set aside.

Separate the egg yolks from the hard boiled eggs. Place one egg yolk in a medium bowl. Chop the other egg yolk and egg whites separately, and keep both aside for later.

Mix the Dijon mustard into whole egg yolk until smooth. Using the back of a spoon or fork, beat in 1/3 cup of the olive oil in a thin, steady stream. Once emulsified, stir in the vinegar and white scallions. 

Add the reserved egg whites to the sauce, along with the capers, the chili flakes and most of the parsley. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. It'll be quite kicky. If the sauce seems too thick, loosen with the extra olive oil. 

To serve, arrange the cooked asparagus on a plate. Spoon over the sauce, then garnish with the chopped egg yolk, reserved parsley and scallion greens. 

Serves 2.

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(Photo courtesy Irene Powell)

"Want to go to the cottage?"

One phrase, six words, and the ability to transport the listener to a whole other reality. Come summertime, there is no sweeter sound to my ears than the promise of a leisurely weekend of food, friends and family, and the opportunity to let concerns of the every day fall away.

While the fall may almost be upon us in the Northern Hemisphere, there still is a part of me that is thinking about the summer sun and afternoons on a deck somewhere. Inspiration for the menu would not be hard, with Marty's World Famous Cookbook (Whitecap Books, 2008) nearby. This cookbook offers up the sort of crowd-pleasing fare that is made for a long weekend of relaxation. And it is not surprising, considering the fact that the author, Marty Curtis, owns and operates the highly-popular Marty's World Famous Café in Bracebridge (located in the Muskoka Lakes region of Ontario, a popular cottage destination).

The book features many of the café's specialties; included are the recipes for their chicken stock and house bread, with notes brewing the perfect cup of coffee. If pressed to find an adjective for this book and its author, I would have to say "likeable." The food is casual, the sort that inspires guests to roll up their sleeves, put their elbows on the table and dive in. Few of the recipes would be considered daunting or demanding of the home cook and the writing is conversational and welcoming.

Curtis' enthusiasm for his food is evident in the anecdotes and tips that are scattered heavily through the pages, often accompanied by evocative location photographs by Allen Dew. The subjects are far-ranging, reminiscent of the wandering conversations of a long weekend. He covers everything from the importance of mental preparedness in the kitchen to the parable of stone soup to how to improve at fishing.

By his own admission, Curtis believes it is best to "go big" - serving up generous 14" pies, jumbo pastries, and showcasing bold flavours at every turn. It is apparent that Mr. Curtis is a man of specific tastes, with an evident love of citrus and aromatic spices. Most notable though is Curtis' preference for the mix of salty and sweet; the combination appears in many recipes with varying success.

To that end, this book seems stranded in a middle ground of being simply nice. The indulgent breakfast and desserts were standouts, but I found many of the main dishes fell short of expectations.

The enormous Lemon, Blueberry and Cream Cheese muffins were tender and moist. With a good deal of sharp lemon to balance the richness of the cheese, these showcased the blueberries quite well; most likely the perfect breakfast for any fan of cheesecake. Eggs Benedict are made even more unctuous through the addition of brie - blitzed momentarily under the broiler, the cheese melts lusciously over the eggs and asparagus. Once napped with Hollondaise, the dish was good but overly-rich to my palate. To that end, I chose to add a splash more acid and a tablespoon of hot water to thin the sauce. Lovers of indulgence might not feel the need to make such alterations.

Marty's Best Brownies were another winner. The rich batter bakes up dense and fudgy, with a deeply crackled top. Walnuts, freshly-roasted and sprinkled with kosher salt, are a tasty addition. The nuts are buttery but with saline crunch that adds punctuation to the sweetness of the dessert.

I would be remiss to review this book without mentioning Marty's World Famous Buttertarts. They are an evident passion; gracing the cover in their golden glory, garnering 16 pages of photographs, notes and recipes within. Not only are they one of the main draws to the café, but they also seem to be the embodiment of Curtis' food philosophy - they are unapologetically large, sweet with warm spices and featuring a hit of citrus. Although I have never been to Mr. Curtis' shop, I had to try these at home. The lard-based pastry (which is also used for sweet and savoury pies) came together quickly, was easy to work with and produced wonderfully-flaky results. While everyone loved the pastry, the buttertarts as a whole received mixed reviews. Some found the filling unlike their opinion of the archetypal treat and so were disappointed, while others found these to be a welcome departure from heavier versions.

I think buttertarts, like the perfect apple pie, are deeply rooted in personal preference and so the idea of tacking down a universally-loved ultimate recipe is virtually impossible.

From the Fishin' Muskoka section, the BBQ Wine and Herb Salmon was succulent and moist, however the highly-flavoured marinade (while delicious) verged upon overpowering the the fish iteself. The same could be said of the Candied BBQ Asparagus from Barbecue Classics. The tangy-sweet sauce contains both sugar and balsamic vinegar; a tasty combination but one that overshadows the asparagus flavour. As one tester put it, "this is really good, but it isn't about the asparagus."

The Barbecue Classics section is also home to the intriguing idea of Buttertart Burgers. A mix of meats retained moisture and texture, but the seasoning (including Curtis' Buttertart BBQ Rub) was one that took the savoury and sweet combination a step too far. Disappointing as that was, it was further troublesome that the Buttertart BBQ Rub, and its related barbecue sauce, is required in a number of recipes in this chapter - after the experience of the burgers, these other dishes were unappealing.

With well-shot food photography by Douglas Bradshaw, a number of solid dishes and featuring contributions from Martio Batali, Michael Smith and Ted Reader, Marty's World Famous Cookbook is as easy-to-like as its author. Straightforward and not particularly challenging, the book is suited to easygoing weekend cooking - or whenever you want to have a bit of a vacation in your own kitchen.

Recipes from Marty's World Famous Cookbook

Fluffiest omelettes ever

World famous bean salad (scroll down to end of article)

The ultimate Canadian back bacon sandwich

The original big sandwich

Pancakes

Lemon, blueberry and cream cheese muffins

Eggs Benedict with melted brie and asparagus

Around this time two years ago, I was coming up with various uses for peas. Before that, I was all about asparagus. While the grass outside is only showing the barest shades of hopeful green, days of sun and warm breezes have put a definite sense of spring in my step. It is fitting then that this year I am embracing the warmth of recent days by serving both green vegetables.

This simple side can be served warm or at room temperature, offering up sweet and tender-crisp veggies tossed with a vinaigrette that can be called nothing short of enthusiastically herby. Served alongside a seared salmon filet this would make a lovely light supper for these glorious early days of the season.

Spring vegetables with green goddess pesto
While not wholly traditional pesto ingredients, the name refers mostly to the texture of the vinaigrette. The combination was inspired by the original Green Goddess Dressing.

Ingredients
2 shallots, cut in quarters OR 3 green onions, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves
1/3 cup fresh flat leaf parsley
2/3 cup mixed fresh herbs; whatever combination of chervil, dill, tarragon, lemon thyme and basil you prefer
1-2 anchovy filets, rinsed if salt packed
Zest and juice from half a lemon
About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (see note)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 pound asparagus, trimmed, cut into approximately 1 1/2" pieces, blanched
2 cups frozen or fresh petit pois, blanched

To make the vinaigrette; place the shallots, garlic, herbs, lemon zest, juice and anchovies into a blender or small food processor. Pulse to reduce the contents to a coarse purée. With the motor running, drizzle in the oil in slowly, scraping the sides down as needed. Season to taste.

In a medium sauté pan over medium-low heat, gently cook the pesto. Stir constantly for about 2 minutes, or until the edge (raw flavours) of the garlic and shallot are mellowed slightly. Toss through the blanched vegetables until just warmed through. Taste again for seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 4-6.

Note:
• The olive oil measurement is only a guide, adjust the amount to best suit your textural preference.
• If you do not mind the pungency of raw garlic and shallots, cooking the pesto can be skipped.
• For this, and many other similar preparations, I prefer to use an immersion blender and a container only slightly wider than the blender head (like a mason jar); this way, the ingredients are well chopped and fully blended.