I can tell because the city started tearing up Clark Street. Along with construction and traffic delays, Spring brings asparagus. This lovely vegetable will most likely feature in many of the dishes I cook over the next few weeks - it takes a lot to make me sick of asparagus. In fact I'm convinced that fresh asparagus is one of the proofs (like mushrooms and mangos) that if there is a god, she must like us.
Of course asparagus has one very unusual quality. WebMD addresses and explains why that happens. If you want to know more about the plant and the crop itself, the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board has the facts you need. Did you know the plant it comes from is a fern and one plant can continue to produce for 15 years?
The first batch of spring asparagus I simply steamed and coated with olive oil, lemon, salt, and pepper. This time out, I made:
Asparagus Ricotta Tart
1 ½ cups plain flour, plus some for work space
6 tablespoons butter
8 oz. Asparagus spears trimmed of woody ends
2 beaten eggs
8 oz (1 cup) ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons yogurt or sour cream
½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Mix the flour and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Mush in the butter with your hands (this produces the best result) until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs and the butter is mixed well with the flour. Stir in enough cold water (about ¼ cup, maybe more) to form a smooth dough and knead lightly on a floured surface.
Roll out the dough and use to line a 9" tart pan with removable bottom. Use a nonstick tart pan or lightly butter the sides. prick the base all over with a fork to prevent "baloon bottom". If you wish, weight the base with ceramic pie weights or dried beans.
Bake the crust for 10 minutes until the crust is firm. It'll still look a little pale and pasty (like my legs at a beach in February), but that's OK.
You've discarded the woody bottoms of the asparagus already. Cut the tips off (about 2 inches or so), and cut the rest of the spears into 1" chunks. Bring a pot of water to a boil and drop in the chopped spears (but not the tips).
After one minute, add the tips to the boiling water. Simmer for 4-5 minutes until almost tender, then drain and immerse in cold water. Separate the tips from the chopped spears.
Mix the ricotta, eggs, yogurt/sour cream, and Parmesan in a bowl until even. Add the chopped stalks in. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and pour the mix in the prepared crust. Smooth out the mix so it fills the shell.
Arrange the asparagus tips on the top of the tart and press them down gently.
Drop the oven temperature to 350°F and bake until golden (approx. 35-40 minutes, but may be longer depending on your oven and the weather).
Let cool for at least 15 minutes before cutting. Serve and eat warm or cold.
The crust as written here is a little bland, and you have to be careful not to overknead it or it'll become too difficult to bite through. If you want to substitute a little Parmesan for the flour and add a bit of thyme, minced rosemary, or tarragon to the crust, I wouldn't tell.
This recipe is based on one from a book called Vegetarian edited by Natalie Ferguson, which was given to us for our wedding by our Maid of Honor, Nataline. (Thanks again, Nataline, it's been a great resource.) The book is beautiful but seems to be out of print at the moment. Look for it in used book stores.