This meal was inspired by a book that we've often leafed through longingly since we received it as a gift last Christmas, but which we've never actually had occasion to use because a) we don't live in California, b) it's a cookbook that takes seasonality very seriously (as you can tell by the subtitle), and c) every time we looked at it, we just wished the market was in full swing. The book, of course, is the one you see above--The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market Cookbook--it was co-written by one of our favorite food writers, Saveur's Christopher Hirsheimer,* and it's really a gorgeous cookbook that's chock-full of good ideas.
Actually, scratch that. This meal was inspired first and foremost by a bunch of asparagus--a particularly beautiful bunch of asparagus. Michelle has a connection to Quinn Farm on Île-Perrot that produces some fine asparagus, and the first of this year's crop had just started to come in. She got a bundle so fresh, so tender, and so naturally sweet that you could actually eat them raw, but we knew that as soon as we cooked them--as long as we cooked them with care--they'd be bursting with flavor. And that was when Michelle turned to The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market Cookbook. She had a good feeling about this one, and her instincts were right on the money. She could have easily made the Shaved Raw Asparagus with Lemon Vinaigrette, but she had a taste for something warm. White Asparagus with Mandarin Orange Mayonnaise was out of the question because her bunch of asparagus was absolutely, positively green. Cecilia Chiang's Asparagus with Soy-Sesame Dressing sounded intriguing, but she was leaning towards Californian/Mediterranean. And then she came across this note accompanying asparagus recipe #4, Roasted Asparagus: "Many European cooks bundle asparagus with string and boil or steam them in salted water, but for the simplest, quickest, and tastiest preparation, roast the whole spears in the oven or, if your grill is hot, over a charcoal fire." Well, our grill wasn't hot, but Michelle liked the rest of that quote, especially the part about simple, quick, and tasty.
1 pound asparagus spears, tough ends snapped off and spears peeled
extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano for serving
Preheat the oven to 400º F.
Arrange the asparagus spears in a single layer on a baking sheet. If your asparagus spears vary in size greatly, separate them into groups of thick spears and skinny spears so that it will be easier to remove the skinny ones first, as soon as they're ready. Drizzle the spears with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Roast the asparagus until the ends are easily pierced with a knife, about 7 minutes for skinny spears and 10 minutes for thicker ones. Transfer to a serving platter, drizzle with a little more olive oil, and, using a vegetable peeler, shave some cheese over the tips. Serve hot.
Finding an accompanying main was easy. She just thought "spring" and "California" and the next thing she knew she was flipping through Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, and not long after that she'd found the one. Of course, this recipe requires a bit of special equipment, but then we love cooking with a brick.
Pollo al Mattone with Lemon and Garlic
4 chicken legs
Salt and pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 branch thyme
16 garlic cloves
1 tsp chopped lemon zest
1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp chopped parsley
special equipment: a brick or two
Bone the chicken legs, opening them out into large flat pieces but leaving the skin intact. Trim the excess fat from the edges. Season both sides of each piece with salt and pepper and refrigerate.
Warm 1/3 cup olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the thyme branch and garlic cloves, and bring the oil to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and stew the thyme and garlic very slowly until softened, about 15 minutes. Carefully remove the garlic with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reserve the garlic-flavored oil but discard the thyme.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. When the pan is hot, pour in the reserved garlic-flavored olive oil and add the chicken legs, skin side down, in one layer. Lay a piece of parchment paper or foil over the chicken, then weigh the chicken down with a brick or two. Cook for about 15 minutes, checking the chicken from time to time to make sure the skin is browning evenly, and adjusting the heat so the legs are not cooking too quickly. Turn the legs over and cook for 5 minutes more, uncovered. The skin should be golden and crisp, and the flesh should be tender when probed with a paring knife. Blot the chicken legs on absorbent paper and arrange on a warmed platter. Put a few of the reserved cooked garlic cloves on top of each leg.
Mix together the lemon zest, chopped garlic, and parsley (all of which should be chopped at the last minute), and sprinkle this gremolata over the chicken. Garnish with lemon wedges and encourage your guests to mingle the flavors as they so desire.
You could hardly ask for a better spring meal. The asparagus did burst with flavor--especially after Michelle added those Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings and a final drizzle of olive oil. The chicken had the loveliest crispy golden skin to it, and the combination of the confited garlic and the gremolata was out of this world. A clean white wine, a tossed green salad, a loaf of bread, and you're done. Plus, neither recipe is particularly hands-on, which made the combo perfectly manageable for a weekday night.
Our first bunch of asparagus of the season... Aside from a couple of snow crabs, that's really our first real taste of spring this year. Fiddleheads and ramps must be just around the corner.
*Hirsheimer is the former executive editor and one of the co-founders of Saveur. She's still a contributing editor to the magazine.