Just when I thought I couldn’t stand another day of pewter-colored skies and the lifeless landscape of late winter, a red bird appeared, darting along the fence line bordering my property on the bayou. I reached for the binoculars. The bird, perched on a cypress limb naked of any leaves, appeared to be surveying the scenery. Did I spy a few tiny, green leaves on the willows across the bayou? Were the bald cypress trees just about ready to begin sprouting?
When the sun peeked out a few days later, I began a general cleanup. I poked and dug around the fern bed that borders the patio and there in the damp mulch I spied some tender tendrils sprouting upward. Yahoo! There is life in that there dirt. Maybe spring really is just around the corner. Just seeing the new growth gave me some inspiration. Smelling the dark, damp earth as I hoed, weeded and trimmed, I dreamt of the spring vegetables that will soon be flooding the produce markets and roadside stands.
Ah, some nice, tender, pencil-thin asparagus, sweet, bright green peas, and maybe, just maybe some sweet onions would be welcome on my dinner table, which is getting boring with cold-weather soups, gumbos and stews.
I can easily make a meal of nothing but asparagus — lightly blanched and drizzled with wasabi-flavored mayonnaise or gently sautéed in olive oil and butter are both definitely appealing.
Although artichokes are not a local product, they are in season in the spring and they never fail to tickle my taste buds. I was taught this preparation by a neighbor years ago when I lived near Audubon Park in New Orleans.
4 medium-size fresh artichokes
3 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 shallots, finely chopped
¼ cup finely chopped yellow onions
1 cup boiled shrimp, peeled, deveined and coarsely chopped
1½ cups seasoned and dried fine breadcrumbs
⅛ teaspoon hot sauce
1 egg, beaten
With a knife or scissors, cut off the top third of the artichokes. Pull off the large, tough outer leaves around the bottom. Cut off the stem flush with the base. Open the center and clean out the fuzzy leaves all the way down to the heart. You can scrape the heart in the center, very gently, with a spoon.
Put the artichokes in a saucepan large enough to accommodate them snugly.
Add 2 teaspoons of salt, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and enough water to cover. Cover artichokes and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until the centers are tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove the artichokes from the pan and turn upside down to drain. Set aside.
Combine butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and onions and cook, stirring, until soft, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add breadcrumbs. Add chopped shrimp and season with remaining teaspoon salt. Add the remaining lemon juice, hot sauce and egg. Mix well. Gently spoon small amounts into the leaves and the center of the artichokes.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Place the artichokes in a shallow pan with about 1 inch of hot water. Brush artichokes with the remaining tablespoon olive oil, cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes or until bread crumbs are lightly browned.
Makes 4 servings
Two-Pea Spring Mix
Tender green and crispy sugar snap peas only need fresh mint and shredded lettuce to enhance the flavor. I like this paired with chunky chicken salad and toasted French bread for lunch.
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup coarsely chopped fresh leeks (white part only)
1½ cups shelled English peas
½ cup chicken stock
¾ pound sugar snap peas, trimmed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
½ Head Bibb lettuce, rinsed and shredded
Salt and freshly ground black
Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks and cook, stirring until tender, about 2 minutes. Add English peas and stock. Cover and simmer gently until the peas are just tender, 3 to 5 minutes.
Add sugar snaps and mint. Cover and cook until the snaps are crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Add lettuce and cook until it just wilts. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm.
Makes about 8 servings
Baked Vidalia Onions
4 large Vidalia or other sweet onions
5 tablespoons butter
½ cup freshly grated
Salt and freshly ground black
pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Trim off root tendrils of onions, leaving all layers attached to the root end. Cut out stem ends, leaving a shallow, cone-shaped well in the top of each. Peel off outer skins and lightly rub onions with about one tablespoon of butter.
Place stem side up, in a shallow baking dish that will hold them snugly and top each with a tablespoon of butter.
Bake in the upper third of oven, basting with juices, until nearly tender, about 45 minutes.
Remove from oven and sprinkle with cheese. Season with salt and black pepper. Return to oven and bake until the cheese is melted and golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand for about 5 minutes before serving with juices.
Makes 4 servings
Blanch 2½ pounds fresh asparagus (trimmed) in boiling, salted water until just crisp (3 to 5 minutes). Cooking time will depend on the size of the asparagus spears. Drain and set aside.
Serve with Dijon dressing or wasabi mayonnaise.
Makes 6 servings
In a small bowl, whisk together ½ cup olive oil, 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar, ½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, 1 teaspoon Dijon-type mustard, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Arrange asparagus in a serving plate and drizzle with dressing. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Whisk together 1 cup mayonnaise, 4 teaspoons soy sauce, 1½ teaspoons sugar, 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, and 2 teaspoons wasabi paste until sugar is dissolved. Drizzle over asparagus and serve as an appetizer or as a side to a perfectly grilled steak of your choice.