Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Springing Into Action

Happy Earth Day, everyone! I generally do absolutely nothing to celebrate this holiday (of sorts), but as I become increasingly frustrated with what I'm finding at the farmers market, I've come to realize that I need to find an alternative means of obtaining fresh, organic, seasonal ingredients. Fortunately, this is about the time that registration ends for most CSA's, or Community Supported Agriculture groups, which I joined just today. For those unfamiliar with these organizations, think of them as the culinary stock market. Each team member is like an investor, buying a "share" of a farms crop. Each member is then given weekly boxes filled with their share of the week's crops, which can include everything from veggies and fruit to eggs, dairy and honey, even dried beans and soap. The season typically lasts from June through November when crops are most fruitful and the farm can provide each member with the greatest variety of products. And like the stock market, you're investing money (and in some cases time) in the farm, hoping to reap the benefits of your investment and keeping your fingers crossed that the fruits and veggies you long for will grow and prosper, making their way into your basket (the small risk being that the weather stinks and there are poor crops that season). For me, joining a CSA will mean that I'll always have a fridge full of fresh ingredients (I hear sometimes even overflowing with them) that are guaranteed to be fresh, organic, and at their peak. I also know that I have a personal hand (and personal check) in supporting small, local, and (often family run) organic farms. And the fact that I won't have to sacrifice my precious Saturday mornings to elbowing my way through the farmers market in the glaring summer sun? Well, that's just gravy.

But until then (is it June yet??), I'll have to settle with the measly findings of the farmers market and my local organic grocer. Luckily for all of us the prices of spring produce are finally starting to dip and I've decided to forgo the farmers market until conditions improve. This week I found lovely thin asparagus spears and fat spinach leaves just waiting to be bought at the Amish market. After a few quick recipe searches it became clear that the recipe du jour for spring is an asparagus pesto. From magazines to blogs and websites, it seems everyone has an alternative use for asparagus, and this year it's pesto. I used a recipe from 101 Cookbooks via Simply Recipes (hooray for blog love!) that sounded like it had the least ingredients so the flavor of the asparagus could shine through (a little trick I use when narrowing it down after searching through hundreds of recipes). I figured I'd take the recipe and serve it over nice thick whole wheat tagliatelle, since the sauce itself would be relatively healthy.

It was a super easy dish, only dirtying one pot, since I blanched the asparagus in the same pot that I cooked the pasta in. The only other mess came from the food processor where the pesto came together. I quickly toasted the pine nuts in a non-stick skillet and then wiped the pan down and hung it back up on my rack. The spinach was lovely and raw, preserving all it's wonderful nutrients that slip away during the cooking process. Once the asparagus was blanched (I only cooked it 2-3 minutes), all I had to do was give it a rough chop to help out my food processor and toss the rest of the ingredients in and blend them while the pasta cooked. It all came together in about 20 minutes and disappeared in half that time. I must say that this is the best pesto I've ever made, and a big thank you to the 101 Cookbooks and Simply Recipes ladies for publishing a delicious recipe. I made one small tweak, but otherwise it was perfect. I highly urge everyone to give it a go, especially if like me, you're not a lover of basil. This is a wonderful, fresh and seasonal alternative that leaves you more than satisfied.

Asparagus and Spinach Pesto
adapted from 101 Cookbooks

1 bunch asparagus spears, ends trimmed
2 cups spinach, washed and dried
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup pine nuts, toasted (heated in a dry pan until slightly browned)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
salt (to taste, I used 1/2 teaspoon)

1. Bring a medium sized pot of salted water to a boil. Add asparagus and cook for 2-3 minutes or until tender crisp and still bright green. Remove from pot and run under cold water (in a colander or strainer) or add to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.

2. Combine spinach, garlic, Parmesan cheese, lemon juice and 3/4 cup of the pine nuts in a food processor. Cut asparagus into thirds diagonally, reserving 1/2 cup to toss with your pasta. Add remaining asparagus to the food processor and blend, slowly streaming in olive oil until a paste forms. If it is too thick, and a few teaspoons of the water you cooked the asparagus in (or, if you're making pasta, this is a great use for the starchy pasta water) until the desired consistency is reached. 

3. Serve mixed with pasta and remaining asparagus pieces and pine nuts, or mixed into boiled potatoes for a pesto potato salad. Enjoy!


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