If a Peeps Latte offered at a roadside coffee joint isn’t an indicator that Easter is almost upon us, I don’t know what is.
Being more of a caffeine traditionalist, I didn’t order that particular one on our recent Spring break getaway to Oregon and Washington states. My girls considered it for a moment, thoroughly immersed as they were in the sea of new sights and experiences from our trip. Mostly, they were taken with the idea of drinking the beloved marshmallow candies they normally gummed their way through. It was not to be, however. Delving into the unfamiliar world of high-octane adult beverages ultimately didn’t prove as alluring as a good ol’ cup of hot chocolate and a crunchy biscotti.
We drove away, forever oblivious to the delights of a Peeps Latte.
It’s just as well. I have other barometers to clue me in to Easter’s imminent arrival. Just off the top of my head I can think of the invasion of brightly packaged chocolates on display at the entrance of any comestible store, the sudden onslaught of Cadbury Creme Egg commercials, and the brilliantly preemptive reminder postcards I receive from my pediatric dentist.
Perhaps predictably, given my obsession with food, I also have my friends, the tender springtime vegetables, to remind me. They appear suddenly, starting a few weeks before Easter, brightening up the produce section of every farmer’s market and grocer with their freshness and vivid colors. All those artichokes, peas, beets and tender lettuces…it makes me happy just thinking about them.
The asparagus, with their plump and tightly closed blossom tips, are one of my absolute favorites. Only in the springtime can you indiscriminately grab a bundle from the pack, secure in the knowledge that each and every spear will have a perfectly coiffed head of hair. It’s such a nice change from the rest of the year, when attentive shoppers have to scour each and every bundle in an effort to avoid choosing one with too many withering tips that – at their worst – look like a perm gone bad.
Along with all this freshness comes a springtime-induced flavor that is far sweeter and less reminiscent of grass. It becomes very easy to make them sing on the plate and in your mouth, and all without a lot of fanfare. British chef, cookbook author, restaurant owner and just all-around food genius Yotam Ottolenghi nailed it when he said: ‘Good asparagus needs minimal treatment and is best eaten with few ingredients.’
I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Ottolenghi, who is especially gifted at creating mesmerizing vegetable dishes. Using too many flavors with peak season asparagus is like putting lipstick on a pretty girl…completely unnecessary.
Once we bring a beautiful bundle or two, or 17!, home, all remains is figuring out how to celebrate their flavor. I usually allow the size of the asparagus to dictate how I am going to prepare them.
Fat, beefy asparagus are a shoe-in for roasting and grilling. Their very thickness allows them to remain – despite their time in the oven or on the grill – juicy and tender on the inside while also acquiring a hint of caramelization on the outside, particularly at the tips. Once I couldn’t find the thick ones and tried roasting those pencil-thin, almost anorexic-looking ones…with abysmal results. They turned out stringy and tough. There just wasn’t enough of them to stand up to the heat.
The thin, and regular-sized, asparagus shine in stir fries and sautées. Because of their small frame, they don’t require parboiling, which makes them a snap to prepare and cook. You just wash and chop them up and you’re well on your way to a quick and tasty meal. Possibly even tastier than an Easter-inspired Peeps Latte.
I consider this roasted asparagus dish a gateway recipe for anyone, including children!, that does not like asparagus. It’s probably cheating, I know, using mozzarella and basil…but I have no scruples when it comes to enticing anyone into loving fresh vegetables. I also love to serve this dish on the actual baking dish. It makes it a fun and informal presentation, with an added splash of drama.
making roasted asparagus & red bell peppers with bubbly mozzarella
To prepare, preheat the oven to 475°F.
Prep 2 bunches of big, fat asparagus (about 2 ½ lbs.) by first washing them and by then holding each shoot at both ends and gently bending it until it snaps. Make sure it’s a happy snap, which indicates that the asparagus is firm and therefore fresh. (If it bends sluggishly, like a sailor after a night of binge drinking, reserve them for a vegetable stock instead.)
Also, reserve the lower ends of the asparagus. Cut off and then discard an inch or so from the very lower, white part of the spear. Peel what remains of the spears and slice them into the happy, tender little rounds that they are. Add them to a pasta dish or an omelette. No need to waste them! I learned this little trick from the New York Times’ Melissa Clark…
Wash, halve and then quarter 1 red bell pepper and 1 orange bell pepper, removing the seeds and white internal membranes, which tend to be bitter. Slice each quarter into 1/3- to ½-inch thick slivers. Place them into a baking pan.
Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and add Kosher or sea salt and fresh-cracked pepper to taste. Using your hand, mix the slices into the condiment, making sure all slices are evenly covered.
Arrange so that all pepper slices are in contact with the pan. This will allow them to cook evenly. Place in the oven and reduce the temperature to 450°F. Roast for 15 minutes and then remove from the oven to add the asparagus.
As the peppers roast, place the asparagus in a shallow, flat bowl. Add 1 tablespoons of olive oilalong with additional salt and pepper to taste. Mix well and spread on the sheet pan with the roasting peppers. Spoon the pepper slices on top and around the asparagus.Drizzle with a final 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
As the peppers roast, place the asparagus in a shallow, flat bowl. Add 1 tablespoons of olive oil along with additional salt and pepper to taste. Mix well and spread on the sheet pan with the roasting peppers. Spoon the pepper slices on top and around the asparagus. Drizzle with a final 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
Return the pan to the oven and roast for an additional 15 minutes, or until the asparagus are tender. Take the pan out of the oven, move the oven tray to about 3 inches from the top (usually the top notch in most ovens), and turn the oven to its maximum temperature.
Add 5-6 thinly sliced basil leaves and arrange 8 oz. of thinly sliced fresh mozzarella on top.
Turn on your oven’s broiler and wait a couple of minutes for it to fire up nice and hot and then add the baking dish. Broil for 2 minutes on high, or until the mozzarella begins to slightly brown and bubble. Serve immediately, with a nice crusty loaf of bread, topped with more thinly sliced basil leaves, if desired. Makes 4 servings.