I hated asparagus as a kid. My mom would often force unfair amounts on my sister and me that we would then have to choke down. Despair, that was the theme of those meals. (Not that we ever complained. My mom made sure there were no picky eaters in her house.) I also hated—and excuse me for saying this but I feel like it’s the white elephant in the room—how it made my urine smell. The odor was so freakish, like did it really come out of my body? (I really hope this phenomenon isn’t unique to me, because it would be really embarrassing for me to admit this fact only to learn that no one experiences the same… issue.)
Someone once asked me in fifth grade what vegetable I would choose to be if I had to be a vegetable, and without even hesitating, I said asparagus. “Because it tastes gross, so nobody would want to eat me,” I explained. Come to think of it, I said this before my entire class, and my teacher, Mr. Ford, laughed heartily. Kids say the darndest things, and always with such earnestness.
Since then, I’ve come to a peaceful truce with the vegetable. It makes its appearance at just the right time every year, right around when my body starts calibrating for the changing season. You know how it goes. There’s the reappearance of green, the sudden bursting of the world into a verdant, shady paradise, and your palate, without warning, shifts gears, and desires all things vegetal.
Oh wait. Spring, with all its connotations of reawakening and rejuvenation, stretching out and the wiping clean of slates, is actually a pretty new experience for me. California winters are hardly unendurable, therefore I’ve never truly appreciated the depths from which one can emerge. Nonetheless, despite having just been initiated to the full effect of this glorious season, the tug for fresh produce is instinctual and urgent.
So far into this season, we’ve been enjoying asparagus steamed or parboiled. While these are the most straightforward of preparations, with nothing but a dash of soy sauce or a sprinkle of salt for flavor, they are usually the most satisfying. I love having asparagus as a side to a bowl of rice or noodles.
This tempura, though less virtuous, is still elegantly simple. Equal amounts of flour and mineral water result in a light, crisp top layer covering a steaming, sumptuous mass of asparagus underneath. Post-deep-fry, the vegetable has a melt-in-the-mouth quality, which I like contrasted against a soy sauce and ginger dipping sauce.
Also, FYI, tempura can be reinvigorated with some time in the oven. I tossed some—hours-old, mind you, and soggy—onto a pizza, and it tasted great.
For this post, I’d like to introduce my friend Luzia.
Luzia and I met about a year-and-a-half ago on the bus ride to the starting point of the Inca Trail. For the next four days, we shared the unforgettable experience of hiking the 26-mile-long trail together, culminating in our arrival at the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu. There were 14 of us in our group, but out of everyone, Chris and I got along best with her and her boyfriend Berni. When we parted ways, we kept in touch since we knew we’d be taking approximately the same path south, and about three months later, the four of us finally met for dinner in Ushuaia, the southernmost town on the South American continent. If that’s not poetic, I don’t know what is. They actually continued on to Brazil for Carnaval before heading back to Switzerland, whereas we ended our trip in Buenos Aires. And that was that.
But actually, it wasn’t, because she and I kept in touch. We’ve kept up a pretty consistent correspondence for the last year, exchanging lengthy emails, in English, and despite it not being her native tongue, she still rocks it. (How do the Swiss do it? She also became practically fluent in Spanish, whereas I at best mastered five phrases.) We are modern-day pen pals.
I’ve always loved exchanging letters with faraway friends. When I was nine, after my family had moved back to the U.S. from Hong Kong, I kept in touch with my best friend by exchanging long, handwritten letters. We kept up our penpalship for years, and I remember it to this day with much fondness. That’s what this correspondence with Luzia has felt like.
Coincidentally, Luzia and Berni also love to cook. About 6 months ago, I asked if she could share a Swiss recipe with me, something traditional that I could make for the blog. She returned with two, one she called Älplermagrone, or Macaroni for the Alpine Herdsman, which, hahaha, I had a pretty good laugh over because the direct translation is just too funny. The other was this strawberry rhubarb tiramisu, which, while it isn’t Swiss at all, is her favorite dessert. That pretty much clinched it. Once rhubarb season rolled around, I would make it. She warned me that it looks disgusting and recommended that I serve it in glasses. Thanks for the tip, Luzia! I am passing it on to the rest of you.
All in all, I loved it! If this recipe is any indicator, we Americans like our desserts much sweeter than European standards. Stewed rhubarb, according to Martha Stewart, calls for 2/3 cup of sugar per 10 ounces of rhubarb (or over a cup per pound). Luzia recommended 5 tablespoons, or just a little over 1/4 cup, per pound. That’s a pretty dramatic difference. In the end, I settled on 6 tablespoons for my pound of rhubarb and that felt just about right to me. The rhubarb retained its pucker, but was nicely balanced by the creamy sweetness of the mascarpone cream and ladyfingers (that’s what we call them, Luzia, odd-sounding, I know), as well as a few splashes of Grand Marnier. It was such a perfect variation of a normally decadent dessert, and really ideal for the springtime.
I have to point out that unfortunately, I am doing this recipe a disservice because I didn’t include the macerated strawberries. My access to most fruits has been limited to the bland-tasting crap being shipped over from who-knows-where, and I know that for this dessert, Luzia is quite particular about using only local, fresh strawberries. I will make amends by doing it right next time, but readers, please take note.
Luzia, thanks so much for everything! Not only for the recipe, but also for your steadfast communication and friendship. I envision you, Berni, Chris, and I sitting together one day over a home-cooked meal, and it will be great. Promise me that we will make it happen?
Girls are… sugar and spice and everything nice. Lavender would fall into the latter category, and coincidentally, it makes me feel so so girly. While girly is not my natural state, my friend, who also happens to be an appreciator of the finer things in life, is, and it was for her that these macarons, which combine both sophistication (like all things French, no?) with femininity, were originally intended. Lavender is her favorite flavor.
These are celebratory macarons, job-well-done macarons, pat-on-the-back macarons, because she just finished her second year of law school (congratulations M!) and only has one year left to go. Of course, I didn’t bother coordinating her schedule with her, and found out later that she flew home, to California. It’s probably a good thing she’s not around to be a recipient, because my latest batch came out, for the most part, cracked, oozed over, and unkempt in all the ways imaginable. I’ve rationalized this disappointment by telling myself that I’m just honing my skills until she returns, which is when I will present her a box of perfect macarons, all tied up with a shiny pink ribbon. (First though, I need to get over this spring cold that makes me drowsy and achey and bleary-eyed.)
What frustrates me the most about the outcome of this recipe is that I didn’t deviate far from my recipe for plain almond shells. There was the addition of one tablespoon (tablespoon!) of dried lavender, and two drops (drops!!) of violet gel food coloring. And yet, what a difference they made. My yield from the two batches I baked: about 20 mediocre shells (only mediocre), and 60 that could’ve filled a textbook with examples of Failed Macarons. Is the batter so sensitive that the tiniest addition of liquid completely changed its chemistry? I have no definitive answer, but it does seem the case. Or maybe I overmixed the batter, or undermixed it, or should’ve used aged egg whites, or failed to let the shells sit out long enough before sliding them into the oven. But I refuse to believe they are that fussy!