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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Simple spring green

By Russ Parsons
Los Angeles Times

Sugar snap peas have always frustrated me — not because they don't taste good, but because I never seemed to be able to do anything to make them taste better.

Asparagus is cooked just a few minutes in a skillet before the egg is poured in to make a ham frittata.

Los Angeles Times

Eaten straight out of hand, they're crisp as romaine, sweet as fruit and explosively green in flavor. But whenever I cooked them, I seemed to wind up with something less, not more.

They're representative of the entire spring vegetable crop that way:

The best cook is the one who chooses ingredients carefully and treats them simply. Let's look at three of the most popular spring vegetables: sugar snap peas, artichokes and asparagus.

The most important lesson in cooking the peas is not to overdo it.

A brief blanching — a minute or two at most — will improve the color and deepen the flavor. Any more and you'll lose the crispness and sweetness.

The best results I've had with sugar snaps is folded into a rice salad, where the soft texture and subtle flavoring highlight their best qualities.

The simplest way to pick sugar snaps is a quick, surreptitious munch. If they taste good, what more do you need to know? Look for pods that are firm and well filled out with peas. The skin should be taut, with no nicks or dents. Some white streaking is fine — the color will even out in blanching.

Choose sugar snap peas that are firm and well filled out with peas, with bright green skin. Taste to make sure.

Los Angeles Times

The biggest variable is stringiness, greater in some varieties than others. If you taste one and get a mouth full of fiber, you'd better plan on spending a few minutes stringing the rest. Grab the stem and snap it back toward the flower end, unzipping the string along the seam.

Artichokes are at the opposite end of the cooking spectrum. It's rare to find them served raw, and even the simplest of dishes takes a lot of preparation. Normally I'm a firm believer in leaving the stems intact — they're as flavorful as the hearts. But sometimes you need a flat base. An old nonna technique is to stick the trimmed stems between the stuffed artichokes to help prop the artichokes upright, so they will get cooked.

There are two schools of stuffing artichokes, which depends largely on the kind you buy.

For really big artichokes, usually used for steaming and dipping, the leaves are spread and little dabs of stuffing are sandwiched between. After cooking, you eat these as you would steamed 'chokes: Pull off a leaf and scrape it between your teeth to remove the soft edible part.

I like the knife-and-fork approach, seen in spring antipasto platters in central Italy. Prepared this way, the artichoke is really more of an edible cup holding a light, savory filling.

Medium artichokes work best here, and require a certain ruthlessness. It's hard to throw away that much vegetable, but every tough scrap of peel you don't remove, your guests will have to.

The cleaning technique I prefer is recommended by Marcella Hazan.

I can offer no better instruction:

"Begin bending back and snapping off the outer green part of the leaves, letting only the whitish, tender bottom of each leaf remain — the edible portion. Use a lemon half to squeeze juice over the cut portions so they won't discolor.

"As you get deeper into the artichoke, the leaves will snap off farther from the base. Keep snapping off leaves until you expose a central cone of leaves that are green only at the tips. Slice about an inch off the top of the central cone, enough to eliminate all of the green part.

"In the center of the artichoke you will see at the bottom some very small, pale leaves with purple, prickly tips curving inward. Cut all of these little leaves and scrape away the fuzzy 'choke beneath them.

"Pare away the green outer parts of the leaves at the base of the artichoke, leaving the white and continuing to rub the cut portions with the lemon half."

When shopping for artichokes, don't pay much attention to looks; you're going to throw away most of what's visible anyway. Focus on weight (heavy for their size) and sound (firm enough to squeak when the leaves are rubbed together).

Choosing asparagus, by contrast, is all about looks. The vegetable is as fragile as a hothouse flower and betrays bad handling instantly. Choose spears with tightly furled tops, smooth, unwrinkled middles and moist cut ends. The best shippers are packaging asparagus upright in cases, with wet pads underneath. Good grocers will display them the same way.

It's hard to imagine something as simple and good as asparagus causing controversy, yet there is a never-ending argument among those who love the vegetable best. Thick or thin?

Thin asparagus doesn't have to be peeled and tends to seem crisper. There is certainly something beautiful about the way the grass-like spears bend and flow on the platter.

Big fat spears, on the other hand, have a juicy, almost mousse-like voluptuousness that is hard to beat. There is little that gets me salivating like a mound of fat spears, simply cooked through and perfumed with the best olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.

And while asparagus is best left whole, when you're mixing it into a dish, chop it into short sections and its flavor will spread better. That's especially true for pastas, risottos and egg dishes such as the frittata recipe that follows.

Just remember, the less you do to it, the better.

In this recipe, the rice is cooked almost like pasta, in plenty of water. That keeps the starch from coating the kernels after it is drained. Do start it in cold water so the starch will soften gradually. And make sure the rice is well cooked, as it will firm up as it cools.

Rice Salad with Ham, Sugar Snap Peas and Provolone

  • 2 cups rice
  • Salt
  • 1 pound ham, cut in 1/4-inch dice
  • 3/4 pound sugar snap peas (trim and string if necessary)
  • 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, divided
  • 3/4 cup chopped green onions
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 6 ounces sharp provolone, cut in
  • 1/2-inch dice

Place the rice in a large saucepan, cover generously with water and add 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, add the ham and reduce to a simmer. When the rice is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes, add the sugar snap peas, then immediately drain and rinse the rice, ham and peas lightly in running water.

Empty the mixture into a bowl and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon vinegar. Add the green onions and mix well. Spread as thin as possible across the bottom of the bowl to cool and dry.

Just before serving, mix together the remaining tablespoon of vinegar and the olive oil. Add this to the rice along with the provolone and mix everything together well. Taste and adjust the seasoning for salt. Serve at room temperature. Total time: 45 minutes. Servings: 6 to 8.

• Each serving: 415 calories; 784 milligrams sodium; 56 milligrams cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 42 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 2 grams fiber.

Asparagus and Ham Frittata

  • 6 ounces ham, cut in 1/4-inch dice
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 2 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 3/4 pound asparagus, trimmed and peeled if thicker than a pencil
  • 12 eggs
  • 1 ounce parmesan, grated (about 1/3 cup)

Heat the broiler.

Cook the ham, parsley and 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet over low heat until ham renders its fat and begins to shrivel, 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut up the asparagus. Start from the base in 1/4- to 1/2-inch crosswise slices. Cut up to the tips, leaving the last inch of tips whole. Add to the ham and continue cooking another 5 minutes.

Melt the remaining tablespoon of butter over medium-low heat in a 10-inch nonstick skillet or omelet pan. Beat the eggs in a large bowl with a fork to break up the yolks. Do not whisk — you don't want to beat in air. Stir in the asparagus, ham and parsley.

Pour into the skillet and cook, stirring gently, just until the eggs start to form curds, about 5 minutes. Scrape the bottom of the pan while stirring to keep the eggs from setting too quickly. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook until the top is almost set, 5 to 10 minutes.

Sprinkle the top with the parmesan and place the pan 4 or 5 inches under the broiler. Cook just until the cheese begins to brown, about 1 1/2 minutes. Remove the frittata from the broiler and loosen the sides with a thin spatula. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

When ready to serve, remove the frittata from the pan and cut it into wedges, or cut into 1-inch squares and place a toothpick in the center of each to serve as an appetizer. Total time: 45 minutes. Servings: 6 to 8.

• Each serving: 211 calories; 362 milligrams sodium; 342 milligrams cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 16 grams protein; 0 fiber.

Artichokes Stuffed with Ham and Pine Nuts

  • 1/2 lemon
  • 12 medium artichokes (about 4 pounds)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 baguette, crust trimmed and cubed (about 2 ounces)
  • 2 ounces ham, cubed
  • 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup white wine
  • Water

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Fill a bowl with water and squeeze the lemon over it. Set aside the lemon.

Remove the tough parts of the outer leaves from an artichoke. This is best done by bending the leaf flat back and then pulling straight down, taking the tips of the leaves and much of the stringy fiber, but leaving the meaty bases. Work your way around the artichoke until you come to leaves where the bases are tender and pale green. Use a large knife to cut off the dark green top by one-third.

Trim the stem of the artichoke with a paring knife, making a flat base, and carefully peel away any tough dark green peel, exposing the tender pale surface. Rub the cut surfaces with the lemon half.

Place the artichoke upside down on a work surface and press down firmly to begin to spread the leaves. Turn the artichoke right side up and use your fingers to spread the leaves as much as possible. Use a melon baller or grapefruit spoon to remove the innermost purple-tipped leaves and scrape the fuzzy choke from the base.

Place the cleaned artichoke in the bowl of lemon water and repeat with the remaining artichokes.

Mince the garlic by dropping it down the feed tube of a food processor while it's running. Stop the machine and add the bread cubes. Pulse 2 or 3 times. Add the ham and the parsley and pulse until both the bread and ham are in large crumbs, about 4 or 5 times. Remove the blade and stir in the lemon zest, pine nuts and salt.

Drain the artichokes (turn them upside down and spread the leaves) and fill the central cavity of each with some of the stuffing mixture, mounding it over the top and working a bit between the leaves. Arrange the artichokes in an oiled baking dish just large enough to hold them in a single layer.

Pour the wine into the bottom of the dish and add water to a depth of about 3/4 inch. Cover the dish with foil and bake until the artichokes are tender enough to easily pull out one of the interior leaves (a knife will pierce the base easily as well), about 45 minutes.

Remove the dish from the oven and carefully pour the leftover liquid into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat and reduce to a thin syrup. Pour over the cooked artichokes and serve warm or set aside to cool to room temperature before serving. Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Servings: 4 to 6.

• Each serving: 148 calories; 452 milligrams sodium; 6 milligrams cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 7 grams fiber.