Nothing pleases children like asparagus. They just can’t get enough of it. So when you bring a few dozen pounds of asparagus to a school cafeteria, you expect to be inundated with boisterous, hungry faces, jockeying for position, beseeching you for more of the stuff. Kids, there’s nothing like ‘em to remind you of the simple pleasures of the farm.
Such was our experience when Jennifer Turner Bitterman, co-founder of The Meadow, organized Farm Awareness Day, bringing together Corey Schreiber, James Beard Award winning chef and Farm-to-School food coordinator with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Nikole Williams, Program Manager of Nutritious Services for Portland Public Schools, and Paul Folkestad, an instructor and chef with the Western Culinary Institute. The event was held in conjuction with PPS’s Local Lunch and Harvest of the Month program, tasting and playing with asparagus with the students of Laurelhurst Elementary School.
And amazingly, the kids, insofar as is possible within the rather bewilderingly frenetic 20 to 30 minutes that they were allotted for lunch, really did eat asparagus.
Jennifer, Corey, and Paul pursued a three stranded strategy in their campaign to a) feed children, b) wake them up to the unexpected pleasures lurking within a stalk of astringent green vegetable, and c) make the entire thing thought provoking and memorable enough to hopefully percolate down to conversation with the parents over dinner table back home.
Strand 1 of the strategy: grill some asparagus and serve it from a platter. 400 kids, lunching in three seatings, can motor through a substantial amount of asparagus, even if there only a minority cared to partake. Minority status notwithstanding, there were a surprising number who were more than willing to wolf down a stalk or two. In fact, in addition to what was served them, I spied dozens of kids skulking away from their seats to grab a stalk, shoving it down their gullets as they returned to their tables, often realizing just as they were about to retake their seats that they had, alas, finished their asparagus, and so would have to skulk away again to get more, and so repeated the circle of seeking, eating, returning, realizing, and re-seeking again and again, transformed by hunger into a sort of asparagus-inhaling perpetual motion machines. (Skulking’s sort of a figurative term, as they really just bounded up from their tables and ran across the cafeteria to Chef Folkestad, who was dispensing piles of thick, remarkably nicely-cooked stalks of asparagus as fast as he could.)
Strand 2 of the strategy: give them the opportunity to personalize their vegetables with salt. Jennifer thought it would help stimulate things if we played off the natural interest in things that are salty, cool, colorful, unique, and salty. In other words, we allowed the kids to partake of the joys of finishing salt, which they did with gusto. We brought three suitably dramatic finishing salts from The Meadow: warm and meaty Kauai Guava smoked sea salt, a rich red Alaea Volcanic sea salt, and a snappy charcoal gray Black Diamond Pyramid sea salt from Cyprus. Hard to know what was the most popular, as the cafeteria was more or less engulfed in a white cloud of aerosolized Himalayan Pink rock salt that I was grating onto kids asparagus, hands, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and upturned smiling faces.
Strand 3 of the strategy: this was the most ingenious part of the entire event. The only thing more effective than the age old trickery known as bait-and-switch is even older trickery of baiting and not switching. We contacted Rudy Speerschneider, the maestro of hand-churned ice cream at Junior Ambassador’s ice cream, which operates out of a “Mostlandian” food cart on Albina Avenue not far from our shop (though if you follow the website, its actually “a fanatasical psychogeographical destination happening anyplace, anytime, anyhow,” which is a difficult place to navigate to using Google maps and conventional ground transportation). The ice cream is indeed almost supernaturally delicious, despite leanings toward the bizarre side. What is funny is that people are as eager to rave about the smoked salmon-cream cheese sundae complete with capers and pickled onions as they are about the vanilla. The kids agreed, and went after the asparagus ice cream with very close to universal enthusiasm.
There was a sort of strand 3 and a half: I stood around with a giant rock of Himalayan pink salt and shaved it onto the little cups of asparagus ice cream. The dusting of salt brought out a hidden sweetness in the asparagus, and as well as fresh glimmers of its trademark vibrant, green, springiness. Plus, the children seemed to find it refreshingly cool and to suddenly find themselves in the proximity of a group of adults crazy enough to hybridize ice cream, rocks, and asparagus into a singularly yummy and theatrical experience.
Below are some simple asparagus recipes provided by Chef Paul to inspire parents and kids take the asparagus experience back home.
Farm-to-School Asparagus Recipes:
These are three easy recipes below, but even easier is to trim your asparagus, plunge it in boiling water for 3 minutes, then plunge in ice water. Serve cold with kosher salt and a squeeze of lemon.
- 2 pounds asparagus stalks, washed and trimmed
- Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Coarsely ground black pepper
- Coarse salt or sea salt
- Selmelier’s recommendation (coarse, moist salt such as Sel Gris de l’Ile de Noirmoutier, or a hearty fleur de sel like Peruvian Warm Spring will give the teeth and the tongue something wonderful to toy with against the juicy/salty aparagus/Parmigiano combination.
Use a vegetable peeler, shave curls off the Parmigian-Reggiano cheese. Snap or cut off the tough ends of the asparagus. Arrange asparagus in a single layer in a shallow baking pan. Blanch the asparagus in lightly salted boiling water for approximately 3 minutes or until crisp-tender; do not overcook. Remove from heat and refresh under cold water; drain well. Toss asparagus with just enough olive oil to lightly coat. Arrange asparagus on a serving platter or individual serving plates. Sprinkle coarse salt, pepper, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese curls over the top of the asparagus.
Makes 4-6 servings.
Simple Roasted Asparagus
- 1 bunch fresh asparagus
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
- salt and pepper to taste
- Selmelier’s recommendation: Black Diamond Pyramid, hands down, a beautiful salt with a touch of earthiness to balance out the asparagus
Preheat oven to 425. Trim tough bottoms of asparagus stalks up to ½ inch. Liberally coat the asparagus with the other ingredients. Roast asparagus on high rack in oven until tender, usually 4-6min depending on thickness of asparagus. Serve hot or cold. Makes 4 portions.
Asparagus with Orange Dressing & Toasted Hazelnuts (from Gourmet Magazine)
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped hazelnuts
- 1 1/2 to 2 pounds asparagus stalks, washed and trimmed
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
- 2 teaspoons fresh orange juice
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Selmelier’s recommendation: Ack, had to edit/eradicate an ingredient! Good sweet lord, why wreck all those fresh ingredients in such a beautiful recipe by introducing industrially refined sodium chloride into it? No offense Gourmet, which we read religiously, but a simple flake salt like Maldon will set the entire dish about five rungs farther up the stairway to heaven.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Toast hazelnuts in a small shallow baking pan until golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Cook asparagus in a large frying pan of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 3 to 4 minutes, and drain well in a colander. Transfer hot asparagus to serving platter or individual serving plates. In a small bowl, whisk together orange zest, orange juice, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Spoon orange dressing over top or asparagus and sprinkle with nuts.
Makes 4 servings.