Monday, May 12, 2014

Frugal Foodie on a British Pound: Signs of Spring

Not asparagus, but my baby sunflowers!
As exams approach rapidly, I seem to find an increasing variety of ways to procrastinate. But what better way than by sharing with you, my dear readers, the arrival of spring in the United Kingdom. At best, the weather here for much of the year can be described as 'dreary'. It is damp, chilly (but not freezing), and blustery. And then the sun comes out. Because we so rarely experience cloudless skies, sunbreaks and the azure heavens evoke a certain thrill, an excitement that one doesn't experience in places like the SF Bay Area (or even Washington, DC, for that matter). When the sun comes out, it quickly becomes apparent the extent of habitation in the city - as people come out of the wood-work, rush to the parks and the fields for sport and lounging.

For me, the signs of this spring renewal are tied tightly to certain floristic indications. Regardless of whether in my childhood home, the Nation's capital, or across a large body of water, the emergence of spring will always be intrinsically linked to asparagus. It is a perennial shoot in the lily family that emerges for only a short period in more northern climes - usually in May and early June. While available year round, imported from tropical regions, there is something particularly special about the ephemeral enjoyment that local and fresh asparagus brings during the spring.

Like many of the plants we consume, our ancestral interactions date back at least a few milennia. Evidence of cultivation and the stem's regal role in cuisine is found in ancient Greek and Roman writing, including the first known recipe book! Probably best known in French culinary tradition, asparagus made its way from the Levant to French monastery gardens in the 15th century, before negotiating a place on English and German tables a century or so later. It is high in micronutrients, and prized for its delicate flavor. 

Unlike the past three years, asparagus is not compromising the majority of my diet during the month of May (as much as I wish it were). And despite the title of this post, asparagus is also not a staple for those on a tight budget (unless you happened to have the foresight to grow your own). However, it is such a vital part of the season that it would just not do to leave it be. Thus, a dish that exudes springiness, despite its slightly elevated price tag (still only a couple of ££)...

Spring Polenta
1 cup boiling water (more as needed)
1/2 cup dry polenta
1/2 onion, chopped
1 tsp olive oil
5 leaves lemon balm
1 sprig thyme
Salt to taste

6 spears asparagus, cut
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tsp olive oil

1. Place asparagus and cherry tomatoes on an oiled baking sheet and roast in a 180C oven for about 15 minutes, until asparagus is soft.
2. Meanwhile, heat oil in a pot over medium-high heat. Sautee onions until translucent and then add water. Bring to a boil before adding polenta. Mine tends to cook quickly, so I need to stir almost constantly for about 10 minutes, but follow the directions on whatever type of polenta you are using.
3. Once it is beginning to thicken, add the herbs and cook until it is no longer gritty (you may need to add more water). 
4. Toss in the tomatoes and the asparagus stems. Top with the crowns and serve!

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