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Fantastic Firsts

3 brilliant recipes using the season’s first bounty, asparagus!

Growing up in the Midwest, we had two seasons: winter and summer. Maybe a bit of autumn, but nothing like the glorious spring we get here in Lancaster. As a transplanted Lancasterian, I now eagerly await, ahem, pester, my local farmer friends for sightings of the “firsts” of the season, be it spinach, strawberries, rhubarb or my favorite, asparagus.

Between that first stalk sometime in April and the final bite the third week in June, I eat asparagus almost daily. Sometimes it’s as simple as crunching on a perfectly roasted spear, as utilitarian as chopping up leftovers into an “everything” salad, or as elegant as a sauce for a light, spring fish entrée. Asparagus provides a platform for more variety than you may have thought.

 

While I can’t wait for the change of season, a part of me has a hard time letting go of winter favorites like citrus and scallops. Asparagus gently guides me into the next season, yet partners beautifully with the one we’re leaving behind. Asparagus and scallops are naturals on the grill and both pair beautifully with a summer herb, tarragon, which I chop finely into a fresh, South American-inspired sauce, chimichurri.

Grilled Asparagus with Tarragon Chimichurri and Scallops

Serves 4

Ingredients:
Chimichurri:

1 cup parsley, coarsely chopped
¼ cup tarragon leaves, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
1⁄3 cup olive oil
Scallops:
16 large dry diver sea scallops (about 1 pound)
olive oil
Asparagus:
Asparagus spears, trimmed
Olive oil, for drizzling
Coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Equipment:
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Food processor
Liquid measuring cup
Dry measuring cups
Grill pan

1. Make the sauce. Place herbs, garlic, red pepper and a couple healthy pinches of salt in food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add vinegar and blend for 30 seconds. With motor running, slowly add oil until emulsified. Season to taste. (Make ahead: Chill for up to 2 days.  Return to room temperature before serving.)


2. Cook scallops. Season the scallops with salt and drizzle lightly with olive oil.  Heat grill or grill pan until medium-hot. Place scallops on grill and cook until cooked and dark lines appear, 2-3 minutes on each side. Remove and set aside.


3. Cook asparagus. Drizzle asparagus with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over moderate heat, turning occasionally, until crisp-tender and blackened in spots, about 8 minutes. Place onto serving platter.


4. Serve. Drizzle asparagus generously with chimichurri (reserving some to dollop on scallops), toss, season to taste with salt. Place scallops on top. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

 

Crunchy textures are another callout to spring’s arrival. Asparagus is a delight to eat raw; this preparation is often overlooked. The key is to slice it crosswise into very small pieces so that it resembles peas, another seasonal favorite.  Combined with earthy mushrooms and drizzled with a last-of-winter
orange marmalade dressing, this salad defines a welcome hello and bittersweet goodbye in each bite.

Asparagus and Mushroom Salad with Marmalade Vinaigrette

Serves 6-8

Ingredients:
Vinaigrette:

2 tablespoons orange marmalade
1-2 tablespoons tahini
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange zest
3 tablespoons olive oil
Veggies:
1 bunch pencil-thin asparagus
½ pound button mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 scallions, thinly sliced
4 cups fresh baby spinach or arugula

Equipment:
Measuring spoons
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Medium mixing bowl
Glass jar with lid

1. Make the vinaigrette. In a glass jar, place all dressing ingredients plus a healthy pinch of salt. Cover tightly and shake vigorously until well blended.


2. Cut the asparagus. Cut off the tough bottom stems from the asparagus and discard. Cut the remaining asparagus crosswise into very thin slices; place into a mixing bowl.


3. Put it all together. Add mushrooms and scallions; toss to combine. Season with salt. Drizzle lightly with vinaigrette and gently toss to combine. Taste again for seasoning.


4. Rest and serve. Let stand about 30 minutes to combine flavors. Gently toss in spinach or arugula; taste again for seasoning and enjoy.

 

Spring nights are often chilly, still calling for warming comfort food. With nothing more than salted, boiling water and a blender, I puree asparagus into a cream and serve it on a bed of store-bought potato pasta,
or gnocchi. Any pasta will work. This dish is sheer delight in 15 minutes.

Gnocchi with Asparagus Cream

Serves 6 (first course) or 4 (entrée)

Ingredients:
1 bunch asparagus, ½ inch pieces
3 ounces soft goat cheese (like chevre)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon milk
3 tablespoons slivered almonds or hazelnuts, toasted
1 package gnocchi
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for garnish

Equipment:
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Large pot
Colander
Blender
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups

1. Cook asparagus.  Bring a medium pot of well-salted water to boil.  Cook asparagus until tender. Place asparagus in blender. Keep water boiling. 


2. Make the sauce. Add remaining ingredients to blender and puree on high until smooth. Season the cream to taste.


3. Meanwhile, cook gnocchi in water saved from cooking asparagus. Drain.


4. Assemble and serve. Place gnocchi in serving bowl. Top with asparagus cream. Generously sprinkle with Parmesan.

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