Asparagus Pesto Linguine. credit Courtesy Gigi Hudson Valley
by Laura Pensiero
While January usually kicks off "diet season," the arrival of spring provides an ideal opportunity to think about a healthier lifestyle. Finally we’re moving far beyond the sweets and treats of the holidays, followed by the braised meats and hearty stews of oh-so-cold January, and the "I give up" sentiment of February.
Yes, it’s definitely time to put away the stew pot and pull out the sauté pan or even the grill! The lighter and colorful harvest of spring looks so tasty and refreshing. I’m filling my shopping bags with fava beans, peas, asparagus, mushrooms and tender ramps along with spring lettuces, spinach, baby beets, slim baby carrots and green onions. A sauté of a combination of all with garlic, olive oil and parsley provides a "trifolata" that sings the season. Alternatively, I’ll single out an ingredient like Swiss chard, kale or even some spicier mustard leaves; after a quick sauté I’ll serve the greens piled onto crusty bread topped with a fried egg. So delicious.
credit Mary Anne McLean
Like many that enjoy our dynamic food scene in the Hudson Valley, I’m a strong proponent of eating locally. The reasons are many—while flavor tops the list, health merits and community connection follow right behind. As a registered dietitian, I’m often asked whether eating locally grown food is more nutritious than eating conventional food. Well, it depends. Research has shown that produce picked at its peak has its highest possible nutrient content and certainly its highest level of antioxidants. Once picked, the quality of fresh produce gradually starts to degrade. My commonsense tells me that when I eat a freshly picked perfectly ripe apple, fewer nutrients are lost to oxidation than an apple sitting on a freight car in Washington State.
But really, I favor local food choices because fruits and vegetables picked at their peak of ripeness just taste so much better. That isn’t a surprise. After all, they have not endured long transit times from farm to table, they haven’t stopped off at processing plants to be sorted and then reshipped, they haven’t been gassed with ethylene to prompt an artificial ripeness, and they don’t come from farms whose production methods I know nothing about. In contrast, when I get asparagus from Grieg Farm adjacent to Gigi Market & Café, I know they’ve been just plucked from the ground and the intensity of flavor blows away anything a supermarket can offer. It all adds up to my personal eating equation: local + seasonal = healthy. Furthermore, community support of smaller local farms encourages them to be adventurous and grow myriad varieties of vegetables and fruit, much more than I’ll ever find in the industrial food market. It’s this diverse cornucopia that, for me, makes cooking more interesting and eating more pleasurable.
Many local kids fully understand the good fortune of this exceptional place we call home. I just recently acquired 501c3 nonprofit status for SEED (Smart Eating Every Day), an after-school nutrition education program. Focus groups led last year in Red Hook elementary, middle and high schools clearly showed that our youth are knowledgeable and proud of their agricultural region and feel they are blessed to live in a this mecca of quality ingredients.
This is clearly a reflection of our agricultural gifts and the commitment of so many. I say: let our kids lead the way to a healthier future.
The Gigi Team and I try to share the pleasures of seasonal and local flavors with our customers every day. Recently we started a new "build your own" Skizza™ and salad option at Gigi Trattoria where you choose among local lettuces and vegetables and add on locally raised turkey breast and/or local artisanal cheeses and cured meats. This is an extension of the work I’ve done for years with a popular food outfit in New York City called "Just Salad." While we don’t have a Just Salad branch in the Hudson Valley (yet!), our Gigi "build your own" menu is one more way of helping our neighbors eat locally, tastily, seasonally and, of course, healthily.
Asparagus Pesto Linguine
Toss this very spring pesto with your favorite pasta, use it as a crudité dip or spread it on a pizza or Skizza™.
Makes 4 servings
1 pound asparagus spears3 garlic cloves, chopped1 teaspoon Dijon mustard½ cup olive oil⅓ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for topping3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 pounds dry linguine or spaghetti
Snap the tough ends off the asparagus. Remove the tips; reserve the tips and stems separately.Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Season with salt. Add the asparagus stems and cook until they’re just tender, 3 to 5 minutes, depending on thickness. Using tongs, transfer the asparagus to a large bowl, cover with cold water, and then drain. Slice the stems into ½-inch long segments and place in the work bowl of a food processor.
Add the tips to the boiling salted water; when tender, about 2 minutes, fish them out with a strainer or slotted spoon. Place the tips in a small bowl, cover with cold water, and drain. Set aside. Keep the cooking water at a low boil.
Add the garlic, mustard and ¼ cup of the olive oil to the food processor with the asparagus stems. Pulse to combine. Add the Parmesan, parsley, and pine nuts. With the motor running, drizzle the remaining olive oil through the feed tube of the processor. Season with salt and pepper and the lemon juice to perk up flavors. Pulse again to combine. If you want a thinner consistency, a few tablespoons of the pasta cooking water can be added later.
Return the cooking water to a full boil and add the linguine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until done, 8 to 12 minutes; check the package instructions. Reserve ½ cup of the pasta water before draining. Add the drained pasta back to the pot and add the pesto and reserved asparagus tips. Cook, stirring, over medium-high heat until hot and well combined, about 1 minute. Add a spoonful of the pasta water, if necessary, to loosen the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper and top with grated Parmesan.
Adapted from my book, Hudson Valley Mediterranean (HarperCollins, 2009).
Trifolate of Spring Vegetables
Trifolate is typically a quick pan sauté that includes mushrooms, parsley, garlic and olive oil. Enjoy this version, which includes some of the Hudson Valley’s finest harvests.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 ¼ pounds pounds fresh fava beans, shelled, or 1 cup frozen double-peeled fava beans, thawed
8 ounces asparagus sliced on the bias into 2- or 3-inch segments
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 shallots, thinly sliced
4 ounces ramps, white and pink parts finely chopped and greens cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound assorted Wiltbank Farm mushrooms—shiitake (stems removed) and oyster, coarsely chopped
Cook fresh fava beans and asparagus in large pot of boiling salted water 2 minutes. Drain and place in large bowl of ice water. Drain again. Reserve the asparagus in a bowl. Slip outer skin off each fava bean and discard skin; place beans in the bowl with the asparagus. (If using frozen fava beans, do not blanch.)
To prepare the trifolate, heat two tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the garlic and shallots, white part of the ramps and half of the parsley. Season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring here and there, until they are golden, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, turn up the heat to high, and add the mushrooms. Cook, tossing or stirring often, until the mushrooms are tender, have released their water and begin to brown. Season with salt and pepper and add the asparagus and fava beans, and the remaining parsley. Cook, tossing or stirring, for 3 or 4 minutes. Serve immediately.
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