Asparagustatory delight: wild asparagus two ways
My love for the St. Lawrence Market is boundless, but I'm the first to admit it has its faults. Perhaps the most glaring is that, despite two floors of greengrocers, butchers, bakers, fishmongers, and other purveyors of delicious foods, there are few organics on offer.
I know this sounds odd coming from someone whose pantry includes such earthly delights as calcium chloride, but I'm really quite sincere. Given the choice, I prefer using organic products. I'd like to think there are countless others in Toronto who feel the same, but the dearth of organic vendors in the market leads me to think otherwise.
If you go to the market looking for organic produce, for example, there is only one option: Golden Orchard Find Foods.
As something of a regular, I've begun to develop a relationship with the people there. That's important, and not because I'm looking for a discount. What I'm really after is a chance to get my hands on their highest quality and rarest ingredients. That's why the first thing I do after work every Friday is head to the market to see what special items are going to be available that weekend.
Sometimes it works out nicely. Like the Friday a few weeks ago when I asked what interesting items were going to be available the next day and was promptly shown a large box of wild asparagus. My eyes almost popped out of my head. Here was an ingredient I'd never seen for sale in Toronto. At almost ninety dollars per kilo it wasn't cheap, but I was quick to buy a large bag of it.
What to do with it was a dilemma.
The taste of wild asparagus is best described as "delicate," but let's be honest, that's often culinary shorthand for bland or weakly flavoured. Those accustomed to the pungency of cultivated asparagus might be disappointed. In our kitchen, we like to pair lighter ingredients with bolder partners, and there's no better vehicle for doing this than risotto.
The key to staple Italian dishes like risotto, polenta, and pasta is that they provide a meaningful background for so many other flavours and textures. In order to give our risotto more flavour we turned to another spring jewel: morel mushrooms. The combination of sautéed morels and wild asparagus was good -- earthy, grassy, and complex -- but I have to admit a little disappointment. This risotto needed something more, something rich. Next time I might try adding a little veal demi-glace to the risotto at the very end.
Having made the risotto, I still had a large handful of leftover wild asparagus. As I pondered ways to use it, I remembered a delicious spinach and goat cheese frittata Rachel and I enjoyed using a Gordon Ramsay recipe. Like risotto, eggs are a wonderful canvas for flavour, and goat cheese seemed like exactly the sort of pungent ingredient to pair with wild asparagus.
For the cheese, I turned to Chris' Cheesemongers, Golden Orchard's neighbour in the market, which has a vast selection of French and Québecois goat's milk cheeses, including a tangy, strong, lightly aged cheese, Buche de Chevre or Rondin du Poitou, that is perfect in this dish. This is my favourite way to enjoy wild asparagus: aged chèvre gives this frittata some backbone, and, melted under the broiler, the lightly browned discs and vibrant green asparagus make a perfect warm weather lunch.
Most people never take the time to know the butchers, bakers, and greengrocers from whom they buy their food. In a world of one-stop megastores, consumers and vendors have become anonymous to each other, and that's just wrong. If you want to eat well, the person selling your food should know you, not just their product. Such relationships don't come easily, they require patience and effort, but the payoff is the chance to sample ingredients that would otherwise slip through your fingers.