I have been (mostly) patiently waiting for asparagus season to begin. Mainly because it means that spring is here, and after this New England winter it couldn’t come soon enough. But also because, even though I love asparagus, I don’t like buying it off-season because of the price tag. (Yes, my pocketbook is my main motivator, even though I try to be “virtuous” about eating what’s in season. But, well, it gets us to the same place).
Someday I’d love to have asparagus growing in the backyard: I’m fascinated by the fact that it can grow up to 4 inches in a day, which is possibly as close to instant gratification as you can get in vegetable gardening. However, as this would mean my two boys would have severely curtailed room to run around, it’s an ambition unlikely to materialize. “Sorry kids! no place to play, but more vegetables!” I don’t think I could sell that.
And so, even though I am a planner and like to have some endpoint in mind when I buy fresh produce (for fear of it otherwise malingering unused), this weekend the price was right and I nabbed my first bunch of asparagus of 2011. I was keenly aware that I needed to figure out what to do with it as quickly as possible: asparagus are a bit like flowers–the stems should be plunged in a glass of water as if they were a bouquet, then kept cold in the fridge. (The setup gets tall so it can be a little tricky to find room in the fridge; and at least in my case comes perilously close to tipping and flooding the trays, which is all the more reason to use it up ASAP!)
We celebrated Easter dinner with relatives (we basically tumbled in off the plane back from our trip to Seattle), so the asparagus was scheduled for Monday night dinner. I ruminated on several classic preparations. Steamed and served with a sauce, roasted, maybe with a sprinkling of parmesan? Great side dishes, but not substantial enough for a satisfying dinner. The daintily named asparagus mimosa? More of a brunch choice than Monday night dinner (not that I’m above breakfast food for dinner, not me). Then, in an a-ha moment on the train home, I realized that a spring tart with a simple olive-oil crust would transform my asparagus stalks into a light, but filling, meal. (Maybe my long commute isn’t time sucked into a void, after all).
Now, I realize that whipping up a tart on the spur of the moment after work doesn’t sound like the brightest idea if you want to eat anytime before 10pm, but by using an olive oil crust I avoided the need for first chilling the dough and then chilling the rolled out crust (one hour minimum). Mixing whole wheat and white flour together with olive oil added even more flavor and a rustic touch; adding tarragon to the dough celebrated the return of spring by imparting grassy, fresh notes. And I added Gruyère because, at least for me, everything is better with Gruyère. (I know this cheese is a bit of an indulgence: as it’s not a dominant flavor you could swap in other types of Swiss or white cheese).
While there are a few separate steps to this recipe, each is quick and manageable and they coordinate efficiently. Make the dough and the filling while the asparagus blanches and the oven preheats. (And by blanche, I don’t really mean you have to bring a huge pot of water to boil. I add a layer of water to the bottom of a large skillet and then gently simmer the asparagus. Have no fear of waterlogged asparagus, as any excess moisture will bake out in the dry heat of your oven). By the time your stalks have just started becoming tender and turned bright green, you’re ready to bring it all together. Assembly is fun: lining up the prepared stalks up and down across the egg and cream mixture seems too easy to produce such an elegant result. The savory filling puffs up as it bakes, while the stems nestle deeper into the pillow of custard.
Remember that asparagus can be a little resistant to a regular butter knife, so use a serrated knife and slice in gently when serving to preserve the good looks of your tart from pan to plate.
Asparagus Tart with Tarragon
- Generous 2 cups (8.8 ounces or 250 g) flour (use a mixture of whole wheat and white)
- 1t salt
- 1t tarragon
- 1/4c (60mL) olive oil
- 1/2c (120mL) water
- one bunch asparagus
- 2.5 oz (70g) Gruyère
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 c (180mL) half and half, or a mixture of cream and milk (I used a 1/2 c of milk and 1/4c cream)
- salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 350F. Pour about 1/4 of an inch (2.5cm) of water into a skillet and heat over medium high. Snap the ends off the asparagus (bend the cut ends and there will be a natural point where they break off the main stalk). Place in the water and bring to a simmer, then adjust the heat to maintain gentle bubbling just below a boil. When the asparagus starts to get tender (but is not fully cooked) remove from heat and drain.
While the asparagus cooks, stir together the dry ingredients of the crust (including the tarragon), then add the oil and water. Dump onto a floured work surface, and knead for a moment to bring the dough together. Form into a disc and then roll it out. Place the rolled out crust into a 10 or 11 inch (40-45 cm) tart mold. Set the mold over a baking sheet (this will catch any spills and keep your oven, floor, and workspace cleaner).
Shred the cheese and sprinkle half over the crust. Stir the milk, eggs, salt, and pepper together, then pour over the cheese, then sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Arrange the asparagus over the filling. It will not look completely full but remember it will puff up in the oven.
Bake the tart on the middle rack of the oven for 40 minutes (but check at 30 minutes). The filling does not need to be browned to be done; rather remove it when it has set and puffed and it is not jiggling in the middle. If you test it with a toothpick, it will come out clean, but still oily (from the cheese) and wet. Again, this does not mean it is underdone (in contrast to a cake).
Enjoy warm, as the custard will deflate as it cools.