April 6, 2008

Seasonal dinner #3

I wrote previously on the seasonal cooking club that I started this year with some friends interested in learning about what is in season when. We then look around do see what we can find here, prepare our parts of the meal, and get together for a dinner party based on seasonal ingredients. It can be hard sometimes to figure out what produce is in season locally, though eating locally and seasonally are two different things.

For example, right now in some of the cooking magazines I read they have recently started including a section on seasonal ingredients (see bon appetit's new "at the market" section), a general indication of what's in season generally and some recipes on how to prepare those things. Early Spring brings us asparagus, artichokes, carrots, peas and lettuces. Whether they are grown here in Tennessee is another story. This is where the difference between buying seasonal or local comes in.

I, like most people I know, was so eager to see the first signs of Spring at the grocery store in the form of lovely green asparagus and artichokes! They were practically falling off the stands at Whole Foods, abundant in all their glory. But come to find out, they're not local at all--these came from California (the asparagus) and some varieties came all the way from Peru! But I learned that they're on their way here in our gardens too, for those of you who have the patience to grow them--it takes 3 years before you even see the first crop!

I learned that last bit at an organic gardening workshop I attended at Eaton's Creek Organics on Saturday. We talked about composting and worm castings, beneficial bugs and how to till the soil with manual tools (all really cool stuff), but the best part about it was seeing what was actully growing right now, which wasn't much. But the first few asparagus stalks were starting to come up like triumphant symbols of Spring and fortitude. Tana, the farmer, went around and pulled a few out of the ground and handed them to us to eat. I have never tasted anything so good and so fresh in my whole life! It was literally like a bite of Spring.

When I got home to prepare my dish for the party with the asparagus I'd bought at W.F., the taste test yielded a predictable result: there was no comparison between the flavor of the one picked in Calif. --who knows how many weeks ago-- and trucked across the country, and the one I had eaten right out of the ground yesterday. I realize this might seem obvious, but experiencing it first-hand instead of just reading or hearing about it was very enlightening.

Back to my dish. After much deliberation and changing my mind at least six times, I decided to try a recipe from the april issue of bon appetit. It was an asparagus-ricotta tart with comté cheese.

It called for one sheet of frozen puff pastry. You may think it's strange that I use that store-bought stuff, being a pastry geek and all, but that is one thing of the frozen variety that we use from time to time even at the restaurant because it is so very difficult and time consuming to replicate all those flaky layers of thin pastry. And, I'm told it isn't any better than the frozen stuff. So I bought a box with two square sheets in it and used them both to make two tarts, one with the soppressata the recipe calls for, and one without for the vegetarians at the party.

Both were equally yummy and easy to make and I will definitely make this again. I may even try it with fruit or other veggies and different cheeses. The comté (a french gruyere) was perfect on it, and the skinny little asparagus looked pretty. The soppressata was a bit too oily though, and next time I would use a dry salami.

The main dish at the party was a braised chicken with artichokes and mushrooms made by Amanda and a first course of parsnip soup with garam masala made by Catherine; and dessert was a gingerbread with vanilla ice cream and rum sauce made by Laura. We drank our share of good wines--mostly whites from Austria (Grüner Veltliner was the winner as it goes really well with green vegetables).

So I stocked up on artichokes, asparagus and big, beautiful radishes in anticipation of some Spring cooking. More on what I'll do with them soon!

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