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June 28, 2006

Asparagustatory delight: wild asparagus two ways

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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.

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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.

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Comments

Raspberry Sour

Hear, hear- I've been wondering the same thing about the market. I just assumed from the first moment I walked in that it would be overflowing with organics, and was shocked to discover the opposite is true. I've tried to track down organic meat a few times, but no luck.

Ivonne

Rob,

You stated my sentiments perfectly! There is a surprising lack of organic produce in the St. Lawrence Market. And what I'm also discovering is that while Ontario abounds with farms, many of them if not most do not adhere to organic farming practices.

I love Golden Orchards although the cost is sometimes a bit of a shocker. But it's worth it.

That photo of the wild asparagus is gorgeous. And the frittata is too delicious!

(Forza Azzurri!)

Michelle

Rob, *amen* to that last paragraph! My favorite vendor in the entire market here is a man who brings in the best goodies and rarest of gooseberries, black currants, porcinis and more. Because I've always gone to him first, and spent time talking with him, he always saves me a box of his best if he knows I'm coming. I too am surprised at the lack of organics available to you. It makes me feel blessed here because almost our entire farmer's market is organic, and if something is not, it's at least "no synthetics applied."

Your wild asparagus is quite a find, and you did such beautiful things with it - I think morels are a perfect accompaniment. I remember picking wild asparagus when I was a kid - too bad I didn't quite appreciate it's subtle flavors then or I'd remember what it tastes like! Thanks for the memories!

Vanessa

local and organic is not an easy thing to find in toronto. it's surprising how little encouragement there seems to be to go in this direction. as a habit from elc, i tend to veer away from the south market but now am very curious about the store you mentioned.

the wild asparagus looks rather delicate in a rustic kind of way. sounds fantastic.

Sandra

Rob!!!???
We waiting for you and your wife in Italy this autumn!!!
Without asparagus...
but you will find porcini!!! :)
Bye

J

hi rob, awesome post as only you can pull off, as always! we never see the likes of wild asparagus here in singapore, so this post has me totally envious on more than just one count!

amanda

Rob, what an amazing find. i've never seen wild asparagus here in san diego. i would love to get my hands on some though! you take amazing photos - some of the best in the food blog world that i've seen. great blog!

Nerissa

A great post :) Right at this moment I'm near a organic store and there is a organic food delivery service in this area. Problem is, I don't live in this area and normally live so isolated that getting decent fresh food of any kind is an achievement. If it happens to be marked "organic" you count yourself extremely lucky.

keiko

Rob, I see you thoroughly enjoyed these beautiful asparagus :) the first shot is stunning!

Pille

I first encountered wild asparagus at a Paris market last May, and made two dishes using this delicate vegetable (http://nami-nami.blogspot.com/2006/05/wild-thing-or-aspirational-asparagus.html). I cannot wait to try it again - it was such a lovely taste sensation:)

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