Apr 03

Richly braised meats, heady from hours spent stewing in red wine, aromatic vegetables and herbs, have their right place in the depths of winter. Even knobly root vegetables can be soothing that time of year, when aggressive roasting can charm their nutty sweetness into submission. Somehow the extended darkness and coldness outdoors makes the kitchen an excellent place to spend several hours while these ingredients surrender to long bouts in the oven. Nature is curious this way.  It somehow knows which ingredients will be most welcome during particular seasons of the year, and what is best not only for the land but also for the soul.

As Easter egg colored crocuses begin to poke their heads up from the earth, I know that winter has finally relinquished its grip. With more hours of sunlight to the day, warm currents of air flowing, and choruses of birds chirping in the newly budded trees, I am pulled away from the kitchen and out into the fresh air.

Verdant young vegetables are finally appearing after months of being buried under unrelenting snow. Tender, sweet and grassy in flavor, they exude all of the elements of Spring and are easy to savor. Minimal cooking, and more time enjoyed outdoors, gradually becomes my preferred approach to cooking this time of year. I find that it suits the delicate flavor of the vegetables, and opens up more of my day to spend enjoying this short season while it lasts.

Two of my favorite Spring vegetables, asparagus and artichokes, are beginning to show their faces at the market and I could not be more excited to buy them up by the bushel. Simply steamed, or lightly charred on the grill, they are best appreciated with minimal preparation so as not to overwhelm their essential flavor. Below are two variations, each requiring 20 minutes or less of cooking, that I use repeatedly this time of year.

Steamed Artichokes with Dijon Vinaigrette*

I have a soft spot for whole steamed artichokes, eaten leaf by leaf, dipped in a light vinaigrette. As you get closer to the heart, the pieces become more succulent culminating in the meaty center. The heart has an earthy butteryness, that far too quickly melts in your mouth, and the astringency of the vinaigrette offers it perfectly. I have yet to try an artichoke prepared any other way, no matter how elaborate, that compares to the subtle deliciousness of one simply steamed and served whole.

*A pressure cooker keeps the preparation time of these to a mere 15 minutes. Otherwise, steaming artichokes whole can take up to an hour in covered soup pot.

Recipe:

Serves Two

Two large globe artichokes (preferably with some purple flecks on the leaf tips)

1 tsp Dijon mustard

1 Tbsp red wine or sherry vinegar

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Method:

Fill the base of a pressure cooker with 4 cups of water and add 1 tsp of salt. Using a serrated knife, trim off the top third of the artichoke and the base stalk so that you create a flat service on the top and bottom. Add the artichokes to the cooker and seal the top in place. Cook over high heat until the pot pressurizes then lower it to medium for about 10 minutes.

While the artichokes are cooking, prepare the vinaigrette. Whisk the vinegar and mustard together in small bowl then gradually whisk in the olive oil to create and emulsion. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Check that the artichokes are thoroughly cooked by pulling out one leaf from the base. If it pulls out easily and the bottom flesh is tender then the chokes are done. Serve each artichoke with a small bowl of vinaigrette to dip the leaves and heart into.

Grilled Asparagus and Spring Onions with Pomegranate Vinaigrette

Grilling asparagus creates an incredible caramelization around the stalks in a matter of minutes. They develop an intense nuttyness and mild sweetness making them undeniably addictive.

Recipe:

2 bunches asparagus (preferably thin, tender stalks)

1 bunch medium-size Spring onions (not scallions)

1 tsp Dijon mustard

4 Tbsp 100% pomegranate juice

zest of ½ orange

extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Method:

Heat an outdoor grill over high heat for five minutes.

Trim off the bottom third of the asparagus stalks and the onions. Trim off the root ends from the onion bulbs then slice each onion in half vertically. Drizzle the onions and asparagus lightly with olive oil then lay them on the grill and season with salt and pepper.

Turn the asparagus every few minutes to make sure they don’t burn completely, but you want the stalks to still char lightly and caramelize on all sides. The onions will take slightly longer to cook and should have nice char marks on both sides and be fairly wilted when done.

To prepare the vinaigrette, whisk the mustard, orange zest and pomegranate juice together in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil then season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve the grilled vegetables with a light drizzle of the vinaigrette.

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