The Smell of Hope in a Maine Winter
The power came back on last night after four days of living in a cold, dark house. Waking up this morning reminded me of the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s world goes from black and white to color. Hard to tell if it was the power or the presence of the sun after seven days of rain and gloom, but the combination is potent.
I took the dog for a walk this morning and I could smell something in the air. “I think we’ve made it through the worst of the winter,” I told Chloe, my yellow lab. She looked up and ignored the comment, going back to the task at hand of sniffing the earth for signs of something interesting. But I was sure she was exploring the same new smell, that oh-so-subtle scent of hope in the air. The moist ground (6 inches of rain fell in 24 hours during the storm), mixed with the new sun created a cocktail of good feeling. As I walked along the trail in the woods behind my house, with the pungent scent of the downed pine trees, I thought I saw some tiny, nubile shoots pushing out of the spongy earth near the overflowing streams. I know it’s only early March but, as far as I was concerned, I had found proof that the end of the worst of winter had arrived. Small gray patches of snow lined the woods, as a reminder to what has been, what may be gone.
I’ve lived in Maine long enough to know that the end is never really the end. I know there will be more snowstorms and more cold, biting winds, and I know there is still much grayness to come. But I tell you what I detected in the air this morning was the beginning of the end. And it felt good.
Although we still have several weeks (well, OK, maybe more than a month) until local foods begin to emerge here in Maine, I found gorgeous asparagus at the market. When I was a kid asparagus and artichokes always meant spring was just around the corner. My mother would steam them and melt butter and we would feast on them for weeks. In honor of this first sunny March day, I bought a pound of asparagus and rediscovered this favorite recipe. If you find a bunch with thin stalks you’ll need to reduce the cooking time by a minute or two and, alternately, if you’re working with thick, fat stalks you’ll want to increase the time. Enjoy these recipes now with fresh asparagus from California or Florida, or save them for later when the first stalks emerge from local Maine soil.
Asparagus “Bundles” Wrapped In Chives with Lemon-Garlic Butter with a Parmesan Cheese Dusting
A celebration of the end of winter, this dish makes a great addition to any spring meal. The dish can be partially made ahead of time.
1 pound asparagus
About 8 fairly thick chives (preferably chives that are at least 6 inches long)
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoons salted butter
1 to 2 cloves finely chopped garlic (depending on how garlicky you want the dish)
Generous grinding black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
About 1/3 to ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Very thinly sliced lemons, for garnish
Trim the tough ends off the asparagus by snapping off the root ends or trimming with a small, sharp knife. Peel the asparagus or not; see below.
In a large skillet, bring 1 to 2 cups water to a boil over high heat. (The water should come up about half an inch in the skillet.) Add the asparagus, cover and let steam about 4 to 5 minutes, or until they are just tender; like al dente pasta. Drain the asparagus under cold running water to stop the cooking and let drain.
Place 3 to 4 asparagus into a bundle and trim the ends, making sure they are all of equal length. Lay a chive on a work surface and place the asparagus bundle on top. Tie the bundle up with a knot or bow. Place the finished bundle into a large, shallow gratin dish, broiler pan, or oven-proof skillet. Repeat with the remaining asparagus and chives, making 8 asparagus “bundles.”
In a small skillet, heat the oil and butter over low heat. Add the garlic and pepper and cook about 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice and cook another 2 minutes. (The dish can be prepared ahead of time up to this point. Cover and refrigerate the asparagus bundles.)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Pour the garlic-lemon butter over the asparagus bundles and bake for 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and preheat the broiler. Sprinkle the cheese on the asparagus, just below the tips and broil for a minute or until the cheese is bubbling. Serves 2 to 4.
To Peel or Not To Peel? The Asparagus Question
It may seem like a fussy, unnecessary step, but peeling the lower half of an asparagus stalk can make the difference between a good asparagus and a really buttery, tender, unforgettable one.
To trim asparagus, hold the stalk in your hand and snap off the stem ends. They will naturally snap off where they start to get tough. (Generally the lower 1 to 1 ½ inches of the stalk will break off. You can also cut them with a small, sharp knife.) Once trimmed, use a vegetable peeler to peel off the lower half of the asparagus; peel until you see a hint of pale whitish color. The contrast of the green asparagus tip and the peeled, whitish lower half is striking. Another advantage of peeling asparagus is that it gives the stalks a uniform thickness so they cook evenly.