Monday, May 28, 2012

Asparagus Season

                                              Harbinger of Spring               

Asparagus bundles at the Monterey Market in Berkeley

My green bin and I celebrate spring with ASPARAGUS. From March to May I feast almost daily on the sweet herbaceous tips and meaty spears of this treasured springtime staple while green bin, my kitchen companion, gets its fill of woody ends and slippery peels. I learned long ago to peel the stalks with my favorite wood-handled Henckels peeler, so little goes uneaten and green bin gets its share. Just when we are tiring of wintry Brussels sprouts, cabbage,  thick-ribbed kale and chard, out bursts this novel treat. First I notice that  Full Belly Farm is offering a few bunches to tease the impatient shoppers at our Tuesday Farmers' Market. These bundles disappear quickly. But soon  large quantities pop out at all the Berkeley markets and we can pick and choose: purple or green, thick or thin, tips or spears, organic or not.

Purple Asparagus from Riverdog Farm Saturday's Market
At the height of the season Riverdog offers tender tips as well as bunches

 I always head straight for the tips which are delicious and a better value.  Fortunately, I am often the only one scooping up these delectables.  I wonder if it is because it is more work to select each spear than to grab a tethered bunch. As a fellow shopper quipped " That is my kind of work!"

Safely home with my bounty, I try to remember  my favorite asparagus recipes.  Every year I make a delicious Sicilian soup with rice, pancetta, onion and asparagus from The Best of Italian Cooking  by Waverly Root;  and I'm dreaming about the fabulous Savory Bread Pudding layered with Leeks,Asparagus, Fontina and Fresh Herbs in Georgeanne Brennan's beautiful cookbook  Potager.  I create pastas incorporating other spring vegetables  like sugar snap  peas, snow peas, green garlic and spring onions now  flooding the markets.

Sugar snap peas and Fava beans offered  by Catalan Farm at the Berkeley Farmers Market

 And I always get around to Chop Chop Salad, an intriguing stir-fry recipe that I  discovered years ago in Gourmet Magazine.  It includes tuna, or perhaps salmon, carrots, beans (not yet in season here but imported form Mexico), onions  and more. This is a hard recipe to track down since it is not listed as such on the Epicurious website (where recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appetit are published).  I finally find it again in the book Gourmet Every Day and it's actually called "Stir fry tuna 'chop chop' salad."  I think "chop chop salad" is catchier  but that always leads to a long search. Of course, since I prefer the simplest method, I usually steam my asparagus and sometimes roast it at  a high temperature coated in olive oil and salt. But my favorite preparation is one I found in Saveur Magazine  about five years ago.  I make this one almost weekly during the season; it's called "Asparagi alla Milanese".  The word "Milanese" refers to the fact that the recipe contains butter instead of olive oil,  not that it comes from Milan. It contains only four ingredients but the result is pure delight. Just steam approximately ten asparagus spears per person, slip one or two eggs, fried in butter,  onto the warm spears and then sprinkle liberally with Parmesan cheese. That's it!  Beautiful, easy and as good as it gets. Try it while the season lasts.

Asparagi alla Milanese- Asparagus,butter, eggs and Parmesan cheese
I often make this for Sunday supper using up the vegetables I bought the day before. Sometimes I add ham or fresh peas which are coming in season. And because it is such a simple meal, the only scraps are eggshells, peels and pods, making for an easy evening for My Green Bin.

I've decided to feature a pertinent book in each of my blogs whenever possible. Today I'm recommending a classic,  Stalking the Wild Asparagus,  first published by David McKay in 1962. This book is about  gathering wild food and making use of it.  Euell Gibbons, the author, foraged for multitudes of wild species all his life. He wrote about the plants, ate them and shared his  adventures and recipes in this collection. His style is delightful and his enthusiasm is infectious. There is a wonderful chapter about his boyhood experiences  stalking wild asparagus in New Mexico, which is, of course, why I'm mentioning him in this blog. The book has been reprinted many times, and pictured below is the field guide edition published in 1970. I own this version and I love the cover photo. Foraging is a popular activity in my area and he was one of the first to  describe its joys and usefulness.

Cover of the Field Guide  Edition  from 1970 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Green and Gorgeous Kohala Coast of Hawaii

On May 14th, I flew with my husband to the Big Island of Hawaii, but my Green Bin had to stay home with the cat. I wondered how I would survive without it for nine days. But to my surprise and delight, a compost container, actually a crock with a ventilated cover, was sitting on the counter of the charming James Cottage on the Puakea Ranch where I was staying.  I was skeptical since it was white and not green but I was willing to put it to the test. I hoped to do a lot of feasting, cooking and composting Hawaiian-style on my vacation.

White ceramic compost crock

Maximum charm, minimum counter space in James Cottage

Before arriving at the ranch, we picked up supplies of local produce like pineapple, papayas, bananas, broccoli and limes,  as well as Trader Vic's Mai Tai, Myers rum, and coffee. Miraculously I discovered beautiful, vibrantly-colored mangoes at the fruit stand in Kauaihae. After ten previous trips to the islands I finally hit mango season. They are sublime!  But after stocking up I discovered that there was a mango tree right next to us, and when the trade winds blew, they thumped down on our roof and thudded to the ground, growing increasingly ripe throughout our stay. Mango heaven! Compost hell! Could the little white crock do the job and compete with green bin? All these tropical fruits have fibrous, thick and sticky skins which produce mountains of compost material. Coffee grounds contribute more grainy mulch, but here, unlike Berkeley, bones and meat products are not allowed. The final resting place for all this messy material is the compost bin in the lovely garden on the property. Since most disposable cups in Hawaii are compostable, they too are thrown into the mix.

Chard freshly picked from the garden
Typical melange of Hawaiian Compost in Earth Work Bin

Mangoes and Papayas at the fruit stand in Kawaihae

At the Saturday Farmers' market  in the tiny town of Hawi only two miles from the ranch, I found these irresistible mango tarts, large and small.  I bought a small one and devoured it on the spot.  The market consisted mainly of pastry and craft stands but there was one farmer from four miles away who sold beautiful vegetables. I bought only broccoli. The carrots were tough and woody, and I had chard and beets in "my" garden. No carrot tops for the white crock. And certainly no leftovers from the mango tart pictured below.
Fresh Mango pie at the Saturday Farmer's Market in Hawi

We  were allowed to collect eggs freshly laid by hens in the chicken coop just a few yards from our cottage. We enjoyed these beautiful birds and visited often to scout for eggs which we boiled on our electric burner. Once, we made an omelet with basil, parsley, beet greens and chard from the garden. It was such a joy to harvest herbs and veggies to our heart's content.

Freshly laid eggs
Stoveless cooking made easy
 (note white bin in background)

Selecting garden herbs for an omelet 
Our evening meals consisted mainly of ultra-fresh fish from our favorite fish store in Kawaihae, recommended by locals at the dive shop where we rented snorkel gear.  We had a great grill, so that took care of cooking equipment and I created marinades from the condiments in our cupboards:
olive oil, soy sauce, lime juice, local ginger and just a bit of our Mai Tai cocktails. I coined the name Mai Tai Mahi Mahi for this recipe. Then we tried local Monchong and we were smitten. Mai Tai Monchong was equally delicious. We boiled local red potatoes on our burner and seasoned them with butter, parsley, oregano and salt. Great with fish, and simple!

Our Favorite Fish Store where we bought Mahi Mahi and Monchong
The Trusty Grill
Beehive Ginger seen in the Botanical Garden

It turns out that Hawaii is a very green state. On the Big Island there are recycle bins everywhere,  containers and cups are eco-friendly, and farmers' markets abound. Wind turbines generate electric energy, geothermal power is obtained from nearby volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea,  and locally grown biomass such as eucalyptus is also used to supply the island with electricity.  There is a highly visible and exciting green consciousness here.

Recycle bins at Mahu Kona - A favorite local swimming spot

Takata Store, our local favorite
I was very impressed with the white crock's composting performance but I'm happy to be heading home to my Green Bin and ample counter space. Aloha for now.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Monday Morning

Kitchen green bin with curbside bin
Another Monday morning and the ecology center trucks are rumbling around my neighborhood collecting compost and plant debris from this week's composting and gardening activity. Pictured at left is my kitchen green bin emptying its contents into the large curbside bin. All the recycling bins are stashed near the street ready for pickup. Below is a closeup of the colorful contents of my curbside bin following the last deposit of roughage: a colorful still-life of repasts enjoyed and detritus shared with my green bin. Notice the wine cork,   a recent entry into green bindom when I am too lazy to trek to Kermit Lynch's wine shop where they would be recycled . No more corks in the garbage! One more step to zero waste..
Here you see a typical selection of early spring compost: orange rinds, aging kale, broccoli and spring onion leftovers and leaves of the now ubiquitous strawberry peeking out. YUM ! Usually I steam my broccoli crowns and tender stalks, organic of course, in my favorite all-clad steamer. My green bin gets only the tough, dry lower stalks. But this specimen was definitely "compost ready" as my sister would say, so green bin enjoyed the whole  package; broccoli florets and all. No need for a recipe here since I prefer  broccoli simply steamed and sprinkled with sea salt rather than any rich preparation. I don't think it even needs butter if the vegetable is fresh, vibrant and organic like my favorites from Full Belly Farm at the farmer's market right now.  Oh, and at bottom far right you can spot the carton from a scoop of cardamom rose ice cream enjoyed at the Tuesday farmers market, served in a paper cup , transported home to be composted. The reappearance of the "Ici" ice cream stand definitely confirms spring's arrival. Whenever they offer a flavor with rose or cardamom or marsala, I can't resist.

That's it for this week's compostable contribution. Soon I'll have to find out where Berkeley's green  waste actually goes when it is picked up in those noisy trucks. Since I don't garden, all mine goes in my trusty green bin. We're working together for fun and a healthier planet.