Monday, March 9, 2009

It Might Be Spring

Asparagus is one of those definite signs that spring has arrived. A contrast of colors and textures within each stalk, I love the way the smooth vibrant green stems give way to thistly purplish-tinged tips. I imagine the asparagus spears pushing their way through the earth, emerging triumphantly to herald the arrival of spring, signifying the end of the winter at last.

March came in like a roaring lion earlier this week, treating us to a substantial snowstorm followed by several chilly days. I didn't check the weather before leaving for my matinee performance of “South Pacific” yesterday afternoon, and I dressed as I would for any typical late winter sunny-but-cold day. But as soon as I stepped outside, bundled up in multiple layers of clothing, I discovered that I had seriously overdressed. It was a beautiful day, and the temperature had spiked a good 15 degrees since yesterday. The trees were about to explode with little buds, the branches spidery with anticipation. It seemed to happen overnight, as the trees went from bare winter branches to limbs about to burst with the expectation of spring.

I unloosened my scarves and unbuttoned my long coat as I strode down Broadway towards my theater, soaking up the unexpected warmth and wishing I had worn a lightweight jacket as everyone else on the street had. I realized that I would probably luck out at the farmer’s market that afternoon, and as I played my matinee of “South Pacific”, my taste buds began to wander in the direction of all things green. This craving took particular focus with a strong yearning for fresh asparagus.

Asparagus has always been one of my favorite vegetables, even as a kid. This early appreciation probably stemmed from one of my favorite episodes of "The Muppet Show" in which Carol Burnett is the guest star and Gonzo organizes a dance marathon which occurs during the course of the show, interrupting all of the previously planned acts. Carol Burnett throws a massive hissy fit when she realizes she won't get to do any of her material, and she is particularly perturbed about not being able to perform her Lonely Asparagus Sketch. Regardless, she dons a hilarious green costume with a spiky hat resembling an asparagus tip, and she tries to deliver her "I am but a lonely asparagus" monologue while a gaggle of Muppets dance frantically around her. This always made me laugh hysterically, and this sketch somehow gave asparagus more credibility in my mind. It made sense to my seven-year-old-self that if it was worth dressing up as this particular vegetable and doing a monologue about it on “The Muppet Show”, it probably was worth eating too. (By using this same line of reasoning, I have showed Mac, my 7-year-old nephew, this Carol Burnett episode and thereby convinced him to eat asparagus, much to the delight of his parents!)

As luck would have it, I found an elegant bundle of thin asparagus at the farmer's market across from Lincoln Center on my way home. I also picked up some local farm-fresh eggs from Knoll Farms and a beautiful loaf of whole grain bread from Meredith’s Breads. I was ready for a simple spring supper.

Eggs and asparagus are good partners. I love roasted asparagus with scrambled eggs for brunch, or an omelet with tender steamed asparagus tips and dollops of soft goat cheese folded into the center. Eggs benedict with pencil-thin asparagus spears nestled in between the folds of ham and blanketed with rich hollandaise. When I’m feeling particularly industrious, I’ll make an asparagus flan that is truly enthralling. But tonight I wanted something simple yet satisfying: lightly steamed asparagus drizzled with olive oil, topped with a perfectly poached egg and sprinkled with fine sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, accompanied by a toasted hunk of crusty bread.

I find this dish hits the spot perfectly, as it is light but filling. It also lends itself to variations, if you feel compelled towards embellishment. Sometimes I tear a few thin slices of prosciutto or black forest ham over the top, letting the pink ribbons mingle amidst the asparagus stalks. I also like to shave a bit of fresh Parmesan cheese over the finished dish, especially if I’m making it for Mac, who loves poached eggs and is now very cooperative about eating them in tandem with asparagus!

It was so warm outside tonight, I was almost tempted to carry my beautiful asparagus and eggs to my roof deck and enjoy dinner outside. But in the end, I simply sat at my table near the window, enjoying the last hour of daylight as I savored my first official taste of spring.

I have given quantities for a modest portion for four people. However, I have been known to down a half-pound of asparagus topped with two poached eggs without batting an eye. Use this recipe as a guideline according to your hunger level and your fondness for these ingredients!

One 1-lb bunch thin asparagus, woody ends trimmed
4 large eggs
a splash of white wine vinegar
olive oil, for drizzling
flaky sea salt and freshly cracked pepper
a wedge of Parmesan cheese, for garnish (optional)
a few thin slices of prosciutto or black forest ham, for garnish (optional)
crusty bread, for accompaniment

Fill a large skillet with lightly salted water and bring to a boil. (Adding a good teaspoon or two of table salt to the water helps the asparagus retain its bright green color.) When the water is boiling, add the asparagus and cook just until tender-crisp, about 2 minutes. Depending on the thickness of your asparagus, you may need another 30 seconds or so, but check it frequently so that you don’t overcook it. Immediately remove the asparagus from the skillet with tongs and divide amongst four wide shallow bowls.

While the asparagus is cooking, poach the eggs by filling a medium-sized saucepan halfway with water and bring to a gentle simmer. Add a splash or two of white wine vinegar to the simmering water, as this will help the eggs hold their shape when they're placed in the water. Crack each egg individually into a small cup or ramekin and carefully slip it into the simmering water. Let the eggs cook for 3 to 4 minutes and remove from the water with a slotted spoon. (3 minutes will give you an egg with a runny yolk, while 4 minutes produces a firmer yolk that holds its shape when cut into.)

Drizzle the asparagus spears with a spoonful of good olive oil and top with a poached egg. Scatter a few shards of fresh Parmesan or tear a few ribbons of prosciutto over the top, and season to taste with good sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve with a toasted slice or two your favorite crusty bread. Serves 4.

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