Using the Harvest: Asparagus
Tis the season for asparagus. It’s available in abundance now. In past years I’ve tried renditions of asparagus soup too numerous to count, so here is something different. I’ve incorporated familiar items into a fun presentation that tastes good. Although it might sound time consuming, it really isn’t. You can make the polenta the day or night before.
I made the above stack, collaborating with Dennis Kercher, at a recent Hidden Kitchen dinner.
Ingredients (for 6 vegetable stacks):
2 cups of polenta (Make polenta according to instructions on the container, but use vegetable or another stock versus milk.)
2 eggs plus 1 tablespoon water
1 cup+ plain breadcrumbs
14 asparagus stalks (two extra to eat while you are assembling)
1 large eggplant, or 2 fatter Japanese eggplants
(Cut the zucchini and eggplant into strips, about 1/4-inch to 3/8’s-inch thick. You’ll need 1 (or 2) strips for each stack.)
6 pieces of red pepper, cut into about 1 1/2-inch wide strips
1 bunch of greens (chard, dinosaur kale or spinach), ribs removed, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 green onions
Other herbs for seasoning as desired (*see below)
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, for seasoning
A package of colored soy wrappers
4-5 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained and diced (small to medium dice)
Balsamic vinegar reduction (purchase a ready made reduction or make it!)
Make Polenta: Use vegetable stock for flavoring, season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Press into a rectangular casserole or sheet pan to about 1/2-inch thickness then smooth the top. Refrigerate for an hour to set the polenta. (You can leave overnight and cut the next day if desired.) Once set, you are ready to cut but first, turn your deep fryer on or put oil into a stock pot to heat to 350°F.
While the oil is heating, cut the polenta into pieces (1 to 1 1/2-inches thick by about 5-inches). Put breadcrumbs on a plate and crack a few eggs into a bowl, adding a tablespoon of water and mix. Dip the polenta pieces in the egg, then roll in the breadcrumbs to coat. Repeat until all pieces are breaded.
Fry the polenta to a golden brown; remove to a paper towel lined plate and set aside until needed.
Grill Vegetables: Toss asparagus and vegetables in a small amount of extra virgin olive oil to lightly coat. Sprinkle with herbs (*dried oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, Italian herbs…whatever you like) and season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Grill them (in a grill pan on your stove or BBQ) to your liking and set aside.
Sauté Greens: Heat about a tablespoon of oil in a pan over medium heat. Add minced garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add greens, stir, and cook for about 5 or so minutes, periodically stirring. Season with salt and pepper, stir then taste. Adjust seasoning as desired, adding more salt or pepper. Set aside until needed.
Green Onion for Ties: You want the longest green piece possible. Blanch in salted boiling water for 20 seconds. Immediately place in an ice bath or in a bowl of very cold water for a few minutes; drain and set aside until needed.
Take a colored soy wrapper (they come in a variety of colors now and can be found at Oto’s Japanese Marketplace in Sacramento) and cut lengthwise into 1 to 1 1/2-inch wide strips. Cut enough strips for the number of vegetable medley stacks you will make.
Lay a strip on a dry surface. Top with one piece of polenta, leaving 3/4-inch on one side (long end) and 1/4-inch on the other (short end). Top with a piece of grilled zucchini, a piece of grilled red pepper or eggplant, a few tablespoons of sautéed greens, then two spears of asparagus. Take the long end of the soy wrapper strip and pull it up and snuggly over the top. Pull the short end up, pressing it against the stack. The long end comes over the short end (you may have to slightly wet the outside of the short end to get the long end to stick. Tuck the long end under the stack if you have enough, otherwise just press it into the side of the stack on top of the short piece.
Cut the blanched scallion green in half, then half again so you have a long strip. Lay it out on a dry, flat surface. Top with a vegetable stack. Bring the ends of the scallion up and tie at the top. You may only have enough to twist the scallion on top, then press into the soy wrapper to get the twist to stick. Do this to all the vegetable stacks.
Place the stacks on a parchment lined and lightly oiled sheet pan. Cover with foil, leaving the sides open (you don’t want any steaming going on, you are just warming the stacks).
Drizzle a zig zag of balsamic reduction on a plate. Place a vegetable stack on top. Sprinkle with diced sun dried tomatoes. Drizzle the top with balsamic reduction and serve. You can also drizzle with a nice, artisan olive oil too for added flavor.
In this picture, you also see roasted golden beets and artichoke hearts. The vegetable stack is on a mound of yummy cauliflower puree (made by Dennis!).