When did asparagus start to look like it grew up down creek from the leaky nuke plant? Once upon a time all bundles of asparagus resembled packs of Ticonderoga #2’s, except they were green instead of school bus yellow, and tipped with terminal buds instead of pink erasers. And thin. Thinner than pencils. Not these Asparagus with Horseradish Cream, Chervil and Honey. These guys are hefty, but by today’s standards they’re mid-size. Larger examples abound, at least at our local WFM. Blame France–they started it. A handful of Februaries ago, in a more innocent age of asparagus, I was strolling through the open air market near Bastille with a Parisian friend when she paused before a box of giant asparagus, not yet widespread in the US. Gargantuan and lavender. She pincered a particularly fat one with two fingers, cocked an eyebrow upward as she examined it and then said, “C’est genial, ceci.” Nice, this one. Nice embraces a variety of meanings, but for purposes of this post I’m going to take it to mean delicious. After eating some I had to agree and since then, I’ve grown to prefer big asparagus. Once you get past the, uh, big factor there’s more there there, more asparagus flavor. Thin asparagus are the vegetable analog to spare ribs. Crazy delicious, but you need to eat a wheelbarrow of them before you cry, “Enough!” With the new Schwarzenegger stalks the crazy delicious remains, but embodied in fewer stalks to snap and peel (if you’re the snapping-peeling type) and, since asparagus are finger food, sigh, less opportunity to dribble sauce down your front.
Jody cautioned me not to create any titles with “babies” and “blood” in them. Then she made the tactical error of going to work. Herewith Dutch Babies with Blood Oranges. C’mon, like you wouldn’t have done the same thing? Besides, after last week’s Attack of the Devil Baby* prank on New Yorkers, I figured you could handle it. What’s a little shudder when these “babies” taste so good, when the payoff is having a hot air balloon collapse in front of you, its final gasps scented with vanilla, cinnamon, orange and lemon? What name would you choose for this wheezy pastry–Dutch baby or German pancake, the main alternative? Dutch babies sound playful, easy, maybe even good for you. German pancakes, whatever their other virtues, convey an air of seriousness. “Time for German pancakes!” could be a euphemism for “Let’s build a railroad through the Black Forest.” So what’s your choice? Light-cuddly-easy? Or Heavy-serious-Hans-Henry-was-a-steel-drivin’-man? Right. Dutch babies it is. And don’t forget the blood oranges.
Who doesn’t love sweet potatoes? Culinary gravity inexorably pulls them toward brown sugar or molasses or something candied, even with bacon (candied bacon). But don’t do it, at least not this time. I never encountered a sweet potato during my year abroad in the Swiss canton of Fribourg, a stone’s throw from the town of Gruyères (town, plural: cheese, singular), but I can guarantee that that if there were ever a culinary match made in heaven it’s sweet potato and that most hazelnut and butter flavored of all cheeses, aged Gruyère. Some cheeses should never be melted (sorry, brie en croute is ghastly) but Gruyère is just the opposite. Quiche, the poster child of boring French food from the ’70’s, is redeemed by the addition of aged Gruyère. Fondue without Gruyère is but a pale revenant of the real deal. Gruyère is expensive (around $20/lb.) but the recipe only calls for a cup and half of the stuff, grated, about 3 ounces. Unfortunately, I only found out about the Gruyère after the ingredients photograph had been taken. Jody announced that she’d added Gruyère–I couldn’t even photograph it being stirred into the bowl. I growled and stomped around. I should have waited until I tasted the finished pie. Gruyère and sweet potatoes rule.
Eggs Baked in Avocado is as easy and foolproof a brunch as you’re likely to find, unless your local patissière delivers bags of warm fresh-baked croissants. If you happen to come into some warm croissants or decent bread to serve with the eggs and avocados, all the better. Baked avocadoes are delicious, but it’s hardly surprising most people have never eaten one, not when a ripe avocado is so good with just a squeeze of lime and a bit of salt. A baked avocado has a rich, deep flavor that loves complimentary fat, like an egg yolk or cream, or the acidic contrast of a salad. As we were pulling the elements of this post together I suggested topping the eggs with a spoonful of crème fraîche and calling it a day. Not Jody. The rule in our house is, once you open an avocado, you eat it–or you make sure someone else does–that same day, so just setting aside the cup of avocado flesh leftover from making a bit of room for the eggs was completely unacceptable. You’re the lucky beneficiaries – you get eggs baked in avocados, served with a spicy avocado salad and crème fraîche.
Gratin typically brings to mind a rich and cheesy dish of root vegetables (pronounced by all American children to rhyme with “all rotten”). Nutritional guilt over this fat fest drives food bloggers to frantic rearrangements of their refrigerator poetry magnets into epithets like “a holiday indulgence” and a “once in awhile treat.” But in the Adams-Rivard kitchen we scoff at a such reservations. We eat gratins when we feel like it, whether Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny is joining us for dinner or not. Thank God for bicycles. Which offers me a segue into this week’s dish, Eggplant, Pepper and Tomato Gratin. While pedaling through Provence a month ago we couldn’t help but notice how much lighter a Provencal gratin is than its Gerard Depardieu-like cousins to the north. The cream had vanished, along with much of the cheese, both supplanted by olive oil, bread crumbs, and fistfuls of crushed herbs. Olive oil, we were reminded, transforms the flesh of vegetables into something unctuous. Caramelization is the gilding on the lily.
Ceci n’est pas une quiche. It’s a Swiss Chard Tart with Gruyère and Anchovies. Quiche sounds so seventies, like the ubiquitous anonymous “white wine” that came into vogue as an alternative to cocktails during the same culinary epoch. Boring. White. Food. But a tart, a tart can play. Sweet or savory, rich or light, it has no rules beyond the obligatory crust, and inclination to use whatever looks good in the market that day. And what looked good to us was the Swiss chard. So, yes, this is a savory custard tart, but it’s really about the chard. Oh, and the anchovies. The tart doesn’t taste like anchovies–it tastes like chard, with cream and cheese, and something salty and elusively delicious in the background.
So what’s up this week? Braised Artichokes with Mozzarella, Tomatoes and Mint. Spring has arrived, and with it truckloads of fat green globe artichokes. No groaning (Oh, god, not artichokes, they’re such a pain…). No, they’re not, and if we learned anything at all from recent events it’s that the small gestures we take for granted are more precious than ever. You only know what you’ve got when it’s gone, so start snapping those leaves off.
We’re back on course to the next Blue Zone* – the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica! Casado – the married man’s lunch is our take on a Nicoyan central meal of the day, protein and salad along with a foundation of black beans and rice seasoned with a particular Costa Rican twist.
The Nicoya Peninisula is a 80-mile long thumb of land that juts into the Pacific from the northwest corner of Costa Rica. Among a certain type of backpacking tourist the peninsula is famous for its many beaches which ring the coastline. But the Blue Zone of the Nicoya Penisula does not include the coast – it is the interior, home of large national parks, still quite rural, and with many inhabitants living traditional lifestyles either as independent farmers or as sedentary agricultural workers finding employment on larger farms, and raising corn, beans, and other vegetables (including two forms of taro) in their own family plots. Until recently the Nicoya Peninsula was relatively isolated, reachable only by ferry until 2003, which saw the opening of the Taiwan Friendship Bridge.
At first glance the Nicoyan diet may not seem that remarkable–rice, beans and tortillas–along with a lot of fruit. But at 60 a Costa Rican man has about twice the chance of reaching 90 as one from the U.S., and this from a country whose medical budget is about 15% of that of the U.S. Nicoyans are some of the healthiest, most long-lived people on the planent. Say hello to Casado – beans and rice with all the fixings.