Friday, April 18
Apple Trees and Asparagus
The apple tree is beginning to bloom and that means I'm craving asparagus.
When I was a child, my favourite story began like this: Once upon a time there was a little house way out in the country . . . There's a reason why The Little House has always fascinated me. You see, as a girl my aunt and uncle owned an apple orchard way out in the country and I thought this story was about them.
We used to visit every Sunday when the weather was warm. If you've ever read this story you can envision exactly how the place looked. The house was up on a hill and out back stretched row upon row of trees fanning out from the house like the tail of a peacock. In the springtime the trees were covered in pearly white blossoms and the orchard buzzed with a million bees. When the weather got warmer we'd watch as the tiny green apples swelled and turned as rosy as our cheeks in the summer sun. In the fall, when the leaves began to change and a cool breeze rustled the heavy branches, the kids would each be handed a paper sack into which we'd gather the fruit that had fallen to the ground. The best apples were sold at the fruit stand down the road, but the ones on the ground were ours for the keeping, as long as we could wrestle them away from the wasps. My grandmother would carefully select the apples that were salvageable and cook them down into apple jelly, and jam, and butter, and sauce to eat all winter long.
Along the back fence meandered a tiny stream. An irrigation ditch, really, but to a city girl like me it was a wonderland, full of adventure and magic. Bullfrogs hid in the tall, cool grass and garter snakes basked in the sunshine by the water. Iridescent dragonflies swooped in and out of the cattails as I walked along the edge. Here and there were placed rickety old boards to act as makeshift bridges. A parent's nightmare; a kid's dream come true! They would wobble, creak and crack as my brother and I raced across those boards into patches of white dandelion fluff on the other side. More than a few times the bridges would tip us into the muddy water below. I used to daydream under those apple trees, and I promised myself that someday I would live in the country.
But here's the best part. The part that's not in the story book. Along with the tall grass, the dandelions, the bullfrogs and snakes grew the most tender, sweetest, most delectable wild asparagus! In spring, when the trees were in full bloom, the entire family would comb through the grass looking for the thick green spears. You had to really search, like finding a needle in a haystack, they were well hidden. But when we found one we'd cut it at the base and stash it in our bag. We spent hours searching the orchard floor. "I found one!" my mother would yell from a few rows away. "Here are three!" exclaimed my brother near the water where the grass was moist. . . Like a treasure hunt, we'd filled up bags and bags of wild asparagus to eat throughout the week, and every Sunday there was more to be found.
That was many years ago and the orchard has long since been sold to someone else. But I do live in the country now. Not "way out in the country," but sometimes it feels that way. And there's an apple tree in the back yard, and though no asparagus can be found at its base, I still crave it like nothing else when the tree begins to bloom.
a large bunch of asparagus (about 30 spears)
1 onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, diced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
3 Tbsp flour
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup whole milk
9 oven ready lasagna sheets (I use Barilla)
8 oz mozzarella cheese, grated
1/4 cup Parmesan, finely grated
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat your oven to 400 F (200 C). Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Clean the asparagus and trim off the dry ends, peel the end if the spears are tough. Plunge the asparagus into the boiling water and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove the asparagus and immediately place in a dish of ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain on a clean kitchen towel and set aside.
In a large sauce pan heat the butter and oil together. Add the onion and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook a minute longer. Whisk in the flour, then the chicken broth and milk. Add 1/2 tsp of lemon zest and the juice from half the lemon. Bring to a simmer and cook about 5 minutes, until the sauce is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Add a large pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Spray a 7 x 11 inch baking dish with nonstick spray. Place about 1/2 cup of sauce in the bottom. Layer in 3 lasagna sheets, another 1/2 cup of sauce, half the blanched asparagus (placed tip to tail width-wise in the pan), and 1/3 of the mozzarella cheese. Place another layer of lasagna, sauce, the remaining asparagus, and 1/3 the mozzarella. Finish with the remaining lasagna and pour the remaining sauce over the top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes.
Uncover and top with the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake an additional 10 - 15 minutes until the cheese is bubbly and beginning to brown. Serves 4