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The Rites of Spring : IN THE KITCHEN : Early Harvest

March 16, 1995|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

It's been almost 10 years since I moved to Southern California, and I still can't tell you what spring means here.

I've lived in places where the season was definite: Snow started to melt, the sky turned blue and forsythia bloomed. Bare trees sprouted delicate green buds. That was spring.

In Southern California, the season is less clearly defined. In spring, it rains. But in winter it rains too. Are spring rains different? Warmer? Windier? Wetter? Not that I can tell. If I'm not careful, my roof will leak just the same.

Still, there is no denying that there is something there. More than anything you can actually put your finger on, it's a feeling. In spring, there's a sense of things emerging. At this time of year--particularly when the sun is shining--it seems that everything is turning green and growing before your eyes.

*

Somehow, without any perceptible prompting, I have recently begun to think about planting and what I'm going to grow in the vegetable garden this summer. I've already got the catalogues out and I am looking impatiently at my limited space. In Southern California, spring is more an urge than a time of year.

In my kitchen, the season starts with asparagus, then moves on to green garlic, artichokes, peas, fava beans, rhubarb, strawberries and apricots, in something like that order. At least, those are the plan-able ingredients--the ones you can find in the market.

Then there are the happy accidents. In my life, these usually revolve around mushrooms. And in spring, that usually means morels. Mushrooms in general--and morels in particular--appear in the strangest of places.

My first encounter with this was many years ago. I'd had a phalanx of messy old poplars removed in the fall, and the next spring I noticed the most oddly shaped mushrooms. There were four or five of them, about three or four inches tall, and they were conical, like wizard's hats. I picked them and took them to a friend who I knew had a more-than-passing interest in mushroom hunting.

"What in the heck are these?" I asked.

And then I waited.

One day. Two days. A week. Two weeks.

*

Finally, I called him. "What in the heck are they?" I asked, again.

"Morels," he answered. "And they were absolutely delicious."

I hadn't thought about that story in ages until a couple of weeks ago when, while a friend and I were wandering past the Downtown library, he mentioned he'd just seen a morel growing in one of the hedges.

Yeah right. Sure enough, I looked around and there was another one--spindly, desiccated and doubtless sprayed with all kinds of lawn chemicals. But a morel nonetheless.

I've got a big bag of dried morels in my pantry now, thanks to a generous friend who came, cooked and went away, and I'm working my way through them. As far as I'm concerned, the single best way to enjoy morels--as with almost any other mushroom--is slathered with butter and heavy cream.

That, unfortunately, is no longer socially acceptable. So when I'm cooking for other people, I've had to come up with alternatives. The aim is to get the creamy, luscious texture you get with butter and cream, but without as much fat.

*

One way around the problem is to serve the sauteed morels as the filling for an omelet. But to get the right finish, the eggs can't be cooked hard. Oh well, thank goodness there's another way--a recipe that can be discussed in public. And, to my mind, it's the best technique of all.

Serve the mushrooms in a risotto, and the starch that is released by the rice will give a nice creamy texture--abetted, of course, by a couple of tablespoons of butter and hard cheese. There's no sense in going overboard about this health thing . . . not when mushrooms are involved.

And besides, in spring hope (to say nothing of asparagus and morels) springs eternal.

RISOTTO WITH ASPARAGUS AND MORELS

1 pound asparagus

1 ounce dried morels, soaked in warm water

6 cups chicken stock, at boil

1/4 cup butter

1 onion, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups arborio rice

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese

* Trim woody ends of asparagus and peel thick stalks to just below tip. Cut asparagus into 1-inch lengths, keeping tips separate. Set aside.

* When morels are soft, drain, reserving liquid, and chop very coarsely. Set aside. Pour soaking liquid through strainer lined with paper towel or old tea towel into saucepan that holds boiling chicken stock.

* Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large saute pan. Add onion and garlic and cook just until translucent. Add morels and asparagus pieces, except for tips, and cook briefly. Turn heat to medium-high and add arborio rice. Cook rice, stirring constantly, until outside surface turns pearly, about 2 to 3 minutes.

* Add 3/4 cup boiling stock to rice and cook, stirring, until pan is nearly dry. Repeat in 3/4-cup batches until rice swells, becomes tender to bite and is enrobed in thick, creamy sauce, about 15 to 20 minutes. When rice is just becoming tender, add asparagus tips.

* When rice is tender and creamy, not mushy, remove from heat and beat in remaining 2 tablespoons butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano, beating until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Serve immediately in heated bowls.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains:

395 calories; 898 mg sodium; 23 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 62 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams protein; 1.47 grams fiber.

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