Monday, April 30, 2012

Roasted Asparagus With Lemon Garlic Sauce

Asparagus Season

Organic asparagus made it's first appearance at Seattle markets a few weeks ago.  If you're wondering what gives with the high price, it's partly because farmers on the east side of the state harvest first and truck it over the mountains to markets.  

Only a few farmers grow asparagus on this side of the Cascades.  Also, Canales farm (the farm that offers the most asparagus) transitioned from conventional farming to organic farming, and this process took three years before they were certified.  Also, alot of people don't realize that farmers pay a per-acre fee for organic certification, and they have to document accountability for organic produce (to the United States Department of Agriculture) from seed to harvest.  This is labor intensive and requires more hours of paperwork.  It's the kind of work that might put my Cooking Assistant to sleep.

The Cooking Assistant

If you're wondering about my  Cooking Assistant, his bark post resumes next week.  Finn is more than eager to share stories (but don't believe everything he says, he's prone to exaggeration) and he equally eager to get in a few naps, hang out with sister Chloe, and revisit a few books.

Favorite place to sneak a nap.

Asparagus--history, selection and care

Native to North Africa, asparagus dates back to the dinosaur days, when ferns were the dominant plants.   It was cultivated as early at 200 BC.  In Europe today most of the asparagus served in restaurants is white and not green.  White asparagus is cultivated in the dark so pigment doesn't form.   Most asparagus grown in the United States is the green variety. 

Michigan, California and Washington produce the most commercial asparagus.  It can be planted from seed or root.  Most farmers plant roots.  Asparagus takes three years of growing before farmers can harvest it.  They cut the stalks off at the base and the plant grows again the next year.  Growing asparagus can be tricky because asparagus requires a strong growing season for the plant to do well the next year.  

Much of the commercial production of asparagus in this country is for processed asparagus.  I can recall the only asparagus I had as a child came from a can.  That kind of experience with vegetables turns people away from things like asparagus.  The downside of fresh asparagus is that it can quickly turn rubbery, especially if you keep it in a plastic bag in the produce bin, like many so-called experts suggest.  Here are a few rules for asparagus:

1. Buy the freshest specimens you can because most tough fiber in the stalk occurs in the post-harvest stage.  Make sure the stalk is firm not rubbery.

2.  Look for tight  heads. Asparagus heads where flowers have opened, have started to go to seed and may be on the bitter side.

3. Buy spears all about the same size for even cooking.  Some people prefer narrow spears, but these are babies.  If you want the best flavor, stick with medium size spears.  These are more mature plants that have had time to develop the best flavor.

4 .  Keep it cold because when it warms to over 40F and if the stalks are out of water, the stems get tough.

5.  Store the stalks in the refrigerator, upright in a small amount of water, just like you would flowers.   This is so the stalks don't dry out. You could put a plastic bag over the stalks to insure they won't dry out, but whatever you do, use them within a day or two at most.  Use just enough water so all the ends of the stalks are covered. 

I never get tired of pairing different vegetables with citrus flavors.  My favorite is Meyer lemon, with a sweeter flavor, more juice and thin skins.  These are plentiful in California but organic versions in Washington are at least twice the price you'd pay at California farmers' market.   

I envy the sun lovers in Arizona who grow these trees in their own yards.

Don't be a tightwad

When you find asparagus at drop dead prices, the chances are this asparagus has been sitting around too long.  Cook it you'll probably end up with tough fibery stalks.  I'm not saying don't pay a low price, but if you know what it takes to grow good asparagus and you see a low price, think about how old the asparagus might be and how eager the store manager might be to get rid of it.

Also, old vegetables also don't have the nutrients that very fresh vegetables offer because some nutrients like vitamin C disappear as the vegetable ages.  For example, spinach can lose as much as 50 percent of vitamin C in just two days!

Instead, why not think of asparagus as a treat?

Asparagus Nutrition

Nutritionally asparagus contains vitamins, A, C, E , K and B vitamins, including folate.  Asparagus also offers potassium, manganese, selenium, zine and fiber that helps regulate blood sugar.

Consider the balance of five flavors when preparing it--sweet, salty, sour, spicy and pungent.  I like to add fresh garlic, but when I'm out, I use garlic powder from Rent's Due Ranch, which I unapologetically horde.

This is garlic drying at Blue Heron Farm last fall.

I found this garlic at the Whidbey Island Coupeville Farmers Market.

When you're ready to use asparagus, snap the ends off.  If you grasp the very end of the stalk and bend it, it will break in just the right place.  We call the ends, the bones.  

Finn and Chloe are crazy about asparagus bones.

Just a little bit of oil and a bit of heat and asparagus spears turn a beautiful shade of green.  Another option is grilling them in a basket.

Here's one of my favorite simple recipes. I use medium-size stalks and was actually considering blending a bit of rhubarb in since the season has just begun for rhubarb also.   (No rhubarb for the hounds, however because it's toxic for them.)

Roasted Asparagus with Lemon-Garlic Sauce
(Serves 4)
This recipe is adapted from The Northwest Vegetarian Cookbook.  It's often the first recipe I make with asparagus in the spring.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 fresh lemon, juice and zest (the outer peel, grated before juicing)
1 tablespoon  hot peppers (optional)
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder or a few fresh cloves of garlic, pressed
Sea salt to taste
2 pounds asparagus

1.  Preheat oven to 350F.  Snap the ends off the asparagus stalks and lay the stalks in a shallow baking dish.  Drizzle  oil over the asparagus.

2. Roast asparagus for 20 to 25 minutes.  Stir occasionally to distribute oil over asparagus.

3. Blend the garlic with lemon juice and zest, pepper sauce, honey, and salt.  Mix well. Spoon the sauce over the asparagus when it is nearly done. Return to oven for 5 minutes.  When the asparagus is fork-tender remove from the oven.

4.  Serve warm or let cool and serve over a spring salad.

The Cooking Assistant will cut his nap short for a chance to eat a stalk of asparagus.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Perpetual Salad Bowl--Going Beyond Your Comfort Zone

A Guest Post by Finn the Cooking Assistant (aka the dog picker)

"We all have to step outside our comfort zones once in awhile," I heard the Lady say years ago.  

I harbor no burning need to leave my comfort zone.  If I'd never been to the beach, I wouldn't sit around and moan about it or put it on some stupid bucket list.   Only a humans would think up things to do and places to go, without exploring the world right outside their own back doors.

Chew on that thought.

Sometimes when you aren't paying attention, even for just an instant, your comfort zone just slips away.  Like Alice in Wonderland.  I'll tell you a story about when I was young, then you can decide about the value of randomly leaving the comfort-zone ship.

Leaving the Zone

Four  years ago it was just the three of us hounds--Abe, the cranky old geezer, Badger, the wirey old opportunist and me, the newbie puppy who spent most of my free time patrolling the yard. I was deep into sniffing the fence line when I noticed the wide open gate.  I stopped for a second, staring at the driveway.   Then I stuck my head out cautiously and caught the scent of ripening vegetables, long past their prime. 

I followed the scent across the driveway.  Most of the vegetables were too far gone, but I found a decent cabbage core and ate that.  Not bad, but nothing I could live on.  I caught the scent of people and wandered up the driveway to see if I could find them.  This was the first time I  left the house behind without the Lady or Man.

Call me optimistic but I honestly imagined the world could be a piece of cake for a hungry hound.  

I couldn't find the people so I did a little exploring. 

Not far from our house is a construction site that's been going on for years.  It's on a route we often take when walking. Workers sometimes leave bits of discarded food, especially on weekends.  I've been to the place many times, but only tethered to the Lady.  

I struck out there, too.  No chip bags, sandwich bones or carelessly dropped tupperware containers. It's a crap shoot in the real world, but I put my nose to the ground and walked on determined to find some tasty morsel.   

I stopped a dog park where I met a couple Frisbee fanatics.  They had little time for more than minimal greetings.  I don't get the allure of balls, even Rin Tin Tin had a real toy.  These OCD retrievers hadn't a clue where we were, either.  They'd only wanted to retrieve the Frisbee.

I worked up an appetite.  So many empty containers, it's no wonder humans are fat.  If everyone tossed away half their burgers, diet books would quit selling and people would quit whining about losing weight.  

Attention: People if you're going to toss the containers, at least let the food go with it.  It's slim pickings for true street dogs and city raccoons.

What I discovered was this: sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone to discover what's important.

I walked and walked and somehow I ended up on my own street again.   I was very hungry, but just before I reached home, I saw the children that I'd smelled when I first left our driveway.   I love people,  so I took a detour to meet our neighbors.

Halfway down the driveway the children shrieked and raced into the backyard.  Playing a game, I thought, so I trotted after them and once I was in the backyard, a slim dark man was waving his arms and yelling at me. He was clearly pissed off about something, but what?  The children ran outside the gate and the man slammed the wooden gate in my face.  

Two men shouted something about a wild dog.  "Call 9-11!"  

I retreated to a space behind a large bush near the back fence and peered out. Two men came into the yard, waving sticks and poking bushes, until they came to the bush I sat behind.  I jumped out and raced to another bush, head down, shaking.  Were they going to kill me? 

Suddenly I heard Abe was baying and his bark was getting closer.  I never thought that geezer dog's bark would be music to my ears, but it was.

I heard the Lady's voice, and a man said, "Yes, we captured a dog.  It could be wild, how are we to know?  We called 9-11."  The lady mumbled something and the gate suddnly swung open.  

Cranky old geezer Abe strained at his leash and barked at me.  I sat shivering, staring at the Lady and Abe, still afraid to move just yet.

"FINN!" the Lady called.  She bent down and I raced to her. 

She leash snapped on my collar.   I held my head high as we walked past the man.  The children and women were peeking out the window.  The Lady went overboard repeating "Thank you so much!" to the man who had nearly killed me with a stick.

"Oh Finn," she cried, hugging me when we got out.

I'd never seen old Abe even leave the yard, but that's boy had a better nose than any bloodhound and  I got a new respect for the old hound, at least for a day, anyway.  Sometimes, if you don't pay attention, a journey can take you in  direction than the route you started on.  I'd had a taste of the outside world and it wasn't my last solo venture out in the world. (The story continues.)

The World of Salads

Food is another comfort zone for many humans and canines.  I didn't get many carrots or any lettuce in my first home, but there isn't any shortage of things that go into the salad bowl today and I'm game to try anything.  Salad  is often the main event in the evenings, especially when the weather turns warmer.

Management doesn't buy cheap fruits and vegetables and then go to movies or concerts.  Social events give way to locally grown organic vegetables. Good quality food comes first round here.

And that's the way salads should be.  How I'd love to be a human just so I could go to the market for fresh vegetables.  Willie Green's might be my favorite booth with all these carrots.

Lately I've been chewing up the arugula in our own yard.  It's a good thing Nash's Farm has enough to supply us.

This time of year,  Management is putting lots of greens in the garden.  I wish I could get out in our garden more often, but I'm not allowed without supervision.  Last year I lost my all-access pass when I picked too many sugar snap peas and raspberries.

And when I ate the flowers I didn't think I'd hear the end of it, until I wanted to shout TMI!  But maybe they've forgotten this season.  Humans have a problem with short term memory recalls, and that means I may have garden access again sometime soon.

If flowers are edible why isn't tree bark?

Sister Chloe has my back these days. I'm sure I can count on her sniffing my trail should I ever have the urge to visit our neighbors again.

So much to eat and so little time.

If you can't count on your pack when the chips are down, what's the point of life?

The Perpetual Salad

I'm grateful Management deems vegetables the primary food group.  We have no shortage of variety in the produce bin, where I'm not officially allowed to poke my head.  Let me just say, I know where the carrots are hidden in this house.

Composed salads entice the eyes, for humans. It's beautiful, humans say. They are in love with beautiful images. "You eat with your eyes first,"the saying goes.  Really?  Not for us canines.  It's the perfume of earthy beets and the light sweet aroma of pears combined with blue cheese that intoxicates the senses.  Obviously "You eat with your nose first." 

The human world is sight dependant, but seriously, as a foodie, if you could only have one, would you rather experience smell or sight in the world of food?  

I call this the perpetual salad because we have it in so many versions.  Add an avocado to something and immediatly crowds of people love it.  What is it about avocados and humans?  I'd go for the carrots or even the strawberries first.

The Perpetual Salad
(Serves 4)

1/4 cup vinegar (your choice), lemon, lime, or orange juice 
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon mayonnaise or mustard
3 cloves fresh pressed garlic, or 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon herbs, such as basil, oregano, rosemary, dill (optional) 
Freshly ground sea salt and pepper to taste
1 large avocado, peeled, cored and diced
6 cups greens (if hearty greens like kale, remove tough stem and finely chop)


2 cups blanched broccoli or cauliflower
Grilled or roasted asparagus
1 apple, cored and diced
1 pear, cored and diced
1 to 2 cups fresh seasonal berries 
1/2 cup dried cherries or cranberries
1/2 cup  toastedchopped walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts
1/2 cup Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue Cheese

1. Combine vinegar, olive oil, honey, mustard or mayonaise, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper  in a small bowl.   Whisk together until well-blended.  

2. Add the avocado and stir very gently until all surfaces are coated.  Blend the avocado and dressing with the greens.

This salad is good on it's own or blend greens with any of the options listed to make it go farther and to add another dimension of flavor.  It looks pretty with blue cheese or pecans sprinkled across the top.

I favor honey from local sources like Tahuya River Aparies.   

I won't be leaving my comfort zone any time soon.
This one definitely passes the sniff test.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Sense of Place: Spring Vegetable Soup with Tepary Beans

A Sense of Place: There's No Place Like Home

A Guest Post by Finn the Cooking Assistant (aka the dog picker)

The human half of our pack returned last week, so now we're all home, the walks are happening, biscuits are flowing, and life is back to normal--exactly the way I like it. But lately, I've been wondering why humans feel compelled to travel. Management says people travel to find a sense of place. But a dog has to wonder: shouldn't we be finding a sense of place in our own backyard first?

Travel. Please tell me what's the allure of hopping on a plane, train or automobile and just taking off? If you love where you live; and by the way, I just got a message that there's an agility course in an off-leash dog park close to where I live. What's not to love about that? And what's with the pressing need to travel?

Seriously, every time they go I hear Management whining about moving like cattle through the security systems, adjusting to a different home, time-schedule, climate, food and people? And don't even get me started on the water complaints. . . . Always an agenda--go here, go there, eat here and there, return through the same factory-farming security system where you can't say a word.

Relaxing? I think not. Take your blood pressure and see. Therein lies the human conundrum and no one ever raises a glass of wine to the process of getting there.

And let me just say, humans take the word "vacation" way too seriously. Frankly, vacation and travel talk often morph into brag fests that put me to sleep faster than a Newt Gingrich speech. Thankfully the canine world lets travel talk pass like wind as humans coo: "When we were in Madrid . . . " or "I remember when I was in Italy. . . ."

Most of us canines never feel the lure of wanderlust. Dogs are too wise to tote bags to a new place when the old bed is fine and there's plenty to sniff in our own yards. . The packed suitcase means a second-rate hotel, too much barking, not enough dessserts and lousy food. At my lodge, an ill-tempered Chihuahua kept everyone, yipping orders like a tiny Nazi dog. He lorded it over everyone that he alone slept with the human who waited on him paw to paw.

No one cared that I ate carrots straight from the vegetable bin at home and curled up in an overstuffed easy chair, lulled to sleep by Buffy the Vampire reruns, my favorite show, if I had to pick. My whining fell on deaf ears.

But while I was whining and doing without, Management was checking out the cactus blooms, butterfly gardens, something called Biosphere 2.

The slow and easy stink-eye was my way of pouting. I like to keep the guilt payments coming. My sister Chloe doesn't hold anything against anyone, ever. But thanks to me, it wasn't long before food was ponied up for the picture--mesquite flour, salsa, and tepary beans, a small, native Southwest legumes.

The best offering of all was dog biscuits from a Phoenix farmer's market. Of course I was forced to share, but I still love gifts to me.

A word of advice--it never hurts to check bags for more when all is said and done. Humans forget important things, like food in a bag. My sister and I ate cookies from some bakery in one bag, so we were encouraged to check them all.

I could just as easily have scored a second time, so I won't give up.

My sense of place includes a full pantry and a memory foam bed.

And a farm that we visit just down the road.

Along the way we stop to take in the view from the street.

I'm not alone in my love of all things rooted. Most of the humans in the world don't have the resources to travel. And does travel really make humans happier? Is sucide lower among travelers? And what if you can find the elusive butterfly of happiness in your own back yard?

I'm a backyard preacher, but even I appreciated sampling these little beans from the desert. What stories they could tell about climate change. And what could be better than celebrating tepary beans in the first vegetable soup of spring?

It's a bit early for Cinco de Mayo, but I could go for an early celebration.

A word from the Management:

Since this recipe contains avocados, the question of whether dogs can really eat them came to mind. About a month ago I'd seen a sign on a booth at a dog show that listed avocado as a canine toxin, along with onions, chocolate and grapes or raisins. I'd heard of all the others but avocado shocked me, so I did a bit of checking here and there. It appears that a toxic component (called persin) primarily in the skin, bark and pit. A small amount is also in the fruit and too much can cause vomiting, but seems no one has ever reported any serious problems in dogs. My opinion is people have overblown the concern over this natural food and really, how much avocado is your Cooking Assistant going to eat anyway?

Spring Vegetable Soup with Tepary Beans
(Serves 4 to 6)
Though this recipe is made with tepary beans, you can use just about any bean except black beans for this recipe. 1 cup dried soaked beans equal about 1 cup cooked beans, sometimes more, depending on the bean. I try to stay with seasonal vegetables for this soup, especially the greens. Remember to vary the color of vegetables, and add them according to how long they should cook. Consider that frozen peas only take a few minutes, while carrots, turnips and potatoes may need 20 minutes.

1/2 cup tepary beans, soaked in water overnight and drained
1 1/2 tablespoon canola or olive oil
1 cup chopped spring onions
8 to 10 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
1 tablespoon chopped Mama Lil's Peppers (or use minced or dried hot peppers to taste)
1 teaspoon agave nectar
1 to 2 tablespoons balsamic or Rocksalmic vinegar
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 28-ounce can water
4 cups of your favorite vegetables, chopped if necessary (corn, peas, cauliflower, cut green beans, carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes, celery, turnips, peppers)
2 cups chopped or torn arugula
1 cup shredded cheese (optional)
1 ripe avocado, pitted, peeled and diced
1 1/2 cups roughly crushed tortilla chips

1. Heat oil over medium heat in a soup pot. Add onions, stir and cook until browned. Add garlic sliced and continue to stir and cook until garlic begins to brown.

2. Stir in basil, peppers, agave nectar, balsamic (or Rocksalmic) vinegar. Blend in tepary beans, tomatoes and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour before adding vegetables that take at least 1/2 hour to cook.

3. Blend in potatoes, carrots and turnips, cover and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Add corn, cut green beans or snow peas in the final ten minutes of cooking. When all vegetables and beans in the soup are tender, layer the fresh arugula with cheese, chips, avocado and soup in bowls, ending with arugula and shredded cheese.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Favorite Recipes and Vacations

I Hate Vacations
A Guest Post by Finn the Cooking Assistant (aka the dog picker)

We've all been on vacation. My sister and I stayed in a hound hotel; Management traveled to who knows where. I don't know who decided vacations were a good idea because it takes me exactly one day to wish I was back home in my own bed with my easy chair life.

"Vacations are relaxing," the Lady had said. Really? Who spread that rumor?

We stayed at a posh place with lots of grass, a long runway and rabbits just outside the fences. I smelled them everywhere, but at the end of the day the bed wasn't mine, and I resented Management for leaving me.

To be fair, plenty of biscuits are doled out there, but the other dogs barked constantly and barked even more frantically at every car that arrived. Who calls that relaxing? I can't imagine a high end human hotel putting up with this clientele. I cried and pouted. My life at home is a vacation. Why would I want to go on one? Where were the carrots, celery sticks and bags of food to steal from? And my bed was hard, room service was nonexistent and easy chairs? Whine, whine, whine. Well, dream on you canine "vacationers."

Excuse the late post; I'll be back on track next week with stories and recipes. In the meantime, I'm back to my real life vacation and maybe I'll revisit some of my favorite books. While I'm catching up on my duties--reducing blood pressure, modeling, guarding the yard, making people laugh and cleaning plates and floors.

I ask you what exactly would I want to "get away" from? I think some humans also don't realize what they've got in their own backyard.

This is about the only kind of post I'll be visiting this week.

So happy to back at home where I have a season pass to the refrigerator produce bin where I've smelled some of the best carrots and celery ever.

Finn's Favorite (Recipe) Posts

Italian Chickpea Soup

These kinds of gifts ease Management's guilt at traveling without us hounds. I'm always certain to snare a farmers' market treat.

And today was Smiley Dog Delivery Day. When life is this good, why go on "vacation?"