Spring

asparagusguysWhen Italians bid you goodbye between the hours of 11:00 in the morning and 1:00 in the afternoon, rather than saying, “See you around” or “Have a nice day,” they say “Buon pranzo,” which is a wish for you to have a good lunch. There’s the difference right there.

Lunch is the uppermost thought — not just that you’ll have lunch but that it will be a good one, seated at a table, with the proper water and wine. You’ll take time; you’ll have a few courses. And because you’re in Italy you won’t overeat or drink because that would not present a bella figura, which is so important to these splendid people.

Perhaps the explanation for the superior quality of Italian food is that for centuries there’s been an eager, appreciative audience expecting it — demanding it — at every meal. 

Allora. After hunting for the elusive asparagus — sometimes on our knees — and coming up with barely enough to put into a dish of pasta, we ran into this guy on the street in Spello, which is a beautiful town just up the road from us.

Asparagi for everybody!

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beets.jpgLos Angeles is shedding its winter coat, the birds are singing; Spring has boinged in like Zebedee. The farmers markets are jam-packed with citrus, strawberries, golden beets and asparagus.

I got four bunches of gorgeous, small, round radishes for $2, two bunches of sweet peas for $4 and tiny beets in every shade of pink and gold. 

Fifteen old friends came to supper last night, a Clein + Feldman reunion.  It was, of course, just as if twenty years hadn't gone by: everyone looked the same, sounded the same, but maybe wiser, greeting each other as if we'd been in the office together just yesterday.

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cherriesinwhitebowlI think most people who shop at farmers’ markets are willing to pay a little more for produce because it’s fresher. There are certain items, however, that are notorious for causing people to balk, such as passionfruit, figs, and, currently, cherries.

These fruits all share common traits: they are unique in flavor and appearance, their season is maddeningly short, and they elicit awe in their viewers. Seriously. This past Sunday, I was expecting harp music to start emanating from the cherry table. It’s no surprise; who can resist gushing over fresh cherries? Both kids and adults are smitten by their cheerful color and juicy sweetness. In fact, one farmer was generously offering samples of bing cherries (pictured above) and was practically sainted by grateful market-goers. It doesn’t take much to make us happy.

Despite our love affair with this precious fruit, some people can’t help but haggle over the price, which is about $6-8 per pound. Let me tell you something: No amount of pleading or applauding will get farmers to budge on the price. Why? Because cherries are difficult to grow. They are highly susceptible to insect damage and disease and need to be carefully monitored. They are also highly dependent upon good weather. Even if the cherries make it to fruition, they are prey to birds that are attracted to their bright red color and sweet juice, and typically need to be protected with netting or cheesecloth. Finally, they must picked carefully and are highly perishable, since they do not ripen once harvested. This all adds up to a labor intensive and expensive fruit to produce, which is why the price is high.

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asparagiWe bought our house in Umbria ten years ago this past summer.

A couple of months after the sale was completed the former owners, Bruno and Mayes, came over for lunch. And as the lunch lingered, as lunches in Umbria do, Bruno interrupted himself in mid-lecture on the glories of Roman pasta.

“Asparagi,” he said calmly. He got up from his chair, crossed over to the wall of our ancient wood-burning oven and snapped off a pencil-thin spear of wild asparagus that was hiding in and among the other grasses.

“It’s all over the place,” he said. “April is the time. You’ll see hundreds of contadini in the fields and by the side of the road, harvesting them. Here, taste.”

I bit off the end of the slender stalk and chewed on it a bit. It was raw, of course, and a little stringy but the taste fairly attacked me with its vibrancy. Wild asparagus is way wilder than tame asparagus.

“Just imagine,” I thought, “how it’ll make my pee smell.”

With that noble scientific quest in mind, I immediately began to search for more. I looked all around the forno, where Bruno found his and then up the hill toward the olive trees, but there were no more spears to be found.

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asparagus1It's May 12th, and asparagus season is nearly over here in Southern California. While the majority of the country enjoys asparagus from April to June, our season usually stretches from late February to early May.

I'm not sad though -- this season's asparagus has been superb. The smooth, svelte green stalks with delicate purple tinged tips have had a mildly earthy flavor and deliciously tender texture. Since I've been buying two bunches of asparagus nearly every week for the last two months, I've learned a few things, So here are some tips on how to select, store, and cook with asparagus.

How to select asparagus: What's better, thin or thick stalks of asparagus?
Both. No, that's not a typo. Every spring there is an endless debate over which is better, thin or thick stalks. Most people swear thick asparagus stalks are tough. I disagree. I have eaten many tender and flavorful thick stalks of asparagus. What' really important is the quality of the stalk: look for straight, firm green stalks with light purple tinged tips. Look at the bottoms of the stalks. If they're white, dry, and woody, then they're probably old. Also avoid shriveled, overly dry, or pitted stalks.

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