Spring is an amazing time for produce. You’re still subsisting mainly on leaves — spinach, lettuce, arugula, sorrel, dandelion, pea shoots — along with winter potatoes, carrots and hard-shelled squash, but blossoms are fizzing along the branches of plum, apricot and apple trees, and though fruit is still weeks away, you’re thinking of the robust, mouth-filling tastes to come: field tomatoes, eggplants and peppers as well as peaches and apples. You’re also remembering how fragile the system can be. Along with the years of luscious plenty, there have been seasons when a vicious frost has wiped out almost all of the state’s apricots and cherries.
And at the Boulder Farmers Market, the first asparagus has arrived with its strong and definite flavor (grassy, a touch sulphurous), piled up at the Miller Farms stand. Asparagus is a particularly welcome sight because it's only around for three to five weeks — when you gorge on it, nibble raw stems, throw it into soups and salads, then start yearning to taste it again after the short season ends. (Don't bother with imported asparagus in August; it tastes like cardboard, and like wet cardboard when frozen. The only way I’ve found to preserve the fresh flavor through the winter is by making asparagus soup.)
The market, on 13th Street between Arapahoe and Canyon, is already open every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. until November 17, and today it launches its Wednesday series, setting up from 4 to 8 p.m. until October 3, giving you an extra day to buy fresh and local and to meet the people who produce your food. Miller Farms, by the way, is the real deal; the Miller family has been farming in Platteville since the Great Depression. As I stop for a couple of bunches of asparagus, the vendor hands two asparagus stems to my eight-year-old grandson and slips a few extra into my bag.
Once home, I contemplate what to do with this bounty, besides just boiling, sautéeing or roasting with pepper and salt. Asparagus likes citrus (lime, lemon and orange); nuts, particularly almonds and hazelnuts; tarragon, fennel fronds and mint (Martha Stewart serves asparagus with melted butter and chopped mint); Gruyère and parmesan cheese; butter, milk and cream. Also eggs. (Past years have yielded recipes for asparagus soup and an asparagus-hazelnut-orange salad that’s beyond delicious.)
Many years ago, at what turned out to be my last lunch with the epicurean film studies professor Virgil Grillo, he served asparagus with a sunny-side egg on top. Normally, I don’t like runny yolk, but there was something deeply memorable about the entire afternoon: the quiet garden, the company, and the sensuality of that yolk sliding over crisp stems. Virgil was suffering from cancer and living with a proud and determined emphasis on the moment.
I have local spring flour from Aspen Moon Farms that requires some experimentation, since whole wheat flour, even fresh and lightish, behaves differently than white. I decide to try it in a tart or pie; my family loves pies, though the kids are apt to fight over the crust and ignore the filling. Quiche allows me to attempt a partially whole wheat crust (full whole wheat crusts tend to fall apart when you roll them out) and accommodates asparagus’s love for eggs, cream and cheese.
The recipe makes two pies. If you want just one, halve it. If you like having dough handy, make the crust recipe and freeze half for future use.
I’ve been using the recipe that came with my first-ever Cuisinart eons ago, and though I’ve tried several others, I always come back to this one. Of course there are good pre-baked crusts around if you’re short on time.
2 cups white all-purpose flour
2/3 cup Aspen Moon Farm’s Red Fife Spring Wheat
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces or a cup) unsalted butter (if you use salted, omit the teaspoon salt) cut into chunks.
Roughly 1/4 cup water
The butter and water should be very cold for this. It’s also not a bad idea to put your rolling pin in the freezer. Dry before using if it gets damp.
Put the flour and salt in the Cuisinart, give them a brief whirl, add the butter. When the mixture starts coming together and looks sort of sandy with fragments of visible butter, add the water a little at a time.
Recipes always tell you to add as little water as possible, just enough to hold the thing together, but I’ve found I often need a touch more than that. When the dough begins to form a ball, place it on a floured counter. At this point — another no-no according to recipe writers — I give it a little knead. It’s true you don’t want the butter to soften — it’s the pebble-sized pieces that make the crust nice and flaky — but I do want the dough to roll out smoothly. A lot depends on atmosphere. I wouldn’t omit the cooling on a hot, humid day; I also try to make sure my hands are cool. And, of course, the rolling pin is cold, too. The whole wheat flour will make a shaggy, wettish dough, so knead in a bit more flour if necessary. (Shut up, hovering experts!)
At this point you’re supposed to divide the dough into two, shape each mound into a neat little disk, cover with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and place in the refrigerator for half an hour. But I find that makes the dough too hard, and it has to sit and soften enough for me to roll it out, which sort of negates the whole point of cooling.
Unless it’s too soft to hold together, I roll the dough out immediately, line the pie pans, and then refrigerate for thirty minutes. Pie crust is easier than the experts would have you think, but working with it does take a bit of practice. On the other hand, the feel of dough between your fingers is nice, even if your result isn't picture-perfect.
For the filling:
7 to 10 strips of bacon, sauteed until crisp, cooled on a paper towel and crumbled (mine is from Homestead Beef). Or if you prefer: mushrooms (the market carries Hazel Dell) sautéed in a little olive oil and butter.
1 pound of asparagus (Miller Farms) that you’ve rolled in a little olive oil after snapping off the hard part of the stem, salted and peppered and roasted in a 350-degree oven for about ten minutes, then cut into half-inch pieces.
2 cups milk or cream
8 to 10 eggs (Jodar Farms)
2 cups cave-aged Gruyère, shredded
A generous scatter of grated parmesan
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh or dried tarragon (optional)
In a large bowl, beat the eggs lightly, add milk and cheese, toss in asparagus and the bacon or mushrooms. Mix and season. (One way of checking for seasoning, since you don’t want to sample raw egg, is to spoon a little of the mixture into a cup or saucer, microwave for a few seconds and taste.)
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SHOW ME HOW
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Prick the pie shells all over with a fork. Line with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Fill with dried beans or use pie weights. Bake for twenty minutes, take the pans out, remove paper and beans (which you can save for re-use in baking), and put the pies back in the oven for perhaps fifteen minutes. It’s good to protect the edges of the crust with aluminum foil or a pie shield, although the edges on my quiche did get a little too brown even with the protector. It’s a trick to get the bottom dry so your pie won’t be soggy without the edges getting overdone.
Wait for the crusts to cool a bit, then pour in the asparagus-egg-cheese mixture.
Slide the whole thing back into the oven (on top of a cookie sheet so things don’t get too messy), and let it cook for about 35 minutes. Test with a thin skewer to make sure the quiche is done.
Let it cool a little before cutting.