Celebrating spring

Cynthia Stone
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Even after a lamb-like winter, celebrating spring is a rite of passage for northern folk. So it is only proper that I mark this new season with the freshest, newest, greenest, lightest dishes in my recipe collection.
My heart skips a beat when the price of asparagus starts to drop, because there are at least a thousand things I want to do with the tender young stalks, then another thousand with the thicker, summer varieties.
This wonderful side dish would be a perfect match to your celebration lamb or ham next weekend, or as a light supper with a salad tonight.
If you've never made risotto, it's not nearly as fussy as some TV cooks might have you believe. You don't have to stir it every second, but you should plan to stay close for the half hour it takes to prepare. And your guests should wait for it, not the other way round, but they won't complain.
One warning: mushy asparagus will absolutely ruin this dish, so don't overcook it. This amount will serve 8 as one of several side dishes or 4 to 6 as the main event.

Asparagus Risotto
1 lb. fresh asparagus, thin stalks if possible
6 cups chicken broth
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, divided (no other)
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 stalk celery, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 cups uncooked short-grain rice (Arborio if possible)
1/2 cup good dry white wine
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper
Trim any tough bits off the end of the asparagus spears. If they are thick remove the outer skin with a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler. Cut into 1-inch lengths. Add to lightly salted boiling water and cook about 3 minutes - it should still be firm. Rinse in cold water, drain and set aside. Bring broth to a boil; reduce heat and keep at a simmer. In a second pot heat together half the butter and the olive oil. Fry celery and onion until soft but not brown. Add rice and cook until the grains start to turn chalky white and each is coated in fat. Add white wine and cook, stirring, until most of the moisture is gone. Add enough hot broth to just cover the rice and cook, stirring often, until it is nearly absorbed. Continue adding broth in small amounts until the rice is tender and creamy - about 20 minutes in all. Stir in remaining 1 tbsp. of butter, the asparagus (reserving a few tips for garnish), Parmesan, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
• • •
It seems like bruschetta has made its way to every menu in every sit-down pizza place in North America. I have been underwhelmed with soggy toast, slimy-soft veggies, flavourless cheese, harsh dried herbs, and sometimes combinations of all the above swamped with cheap and greasy olive oil. Forget it - stay home and make this as a welcome first course or perfect soup-side for lunch. To seed tomatoes, cut them in half and scoop out the seeds between the ribs. Use a vegetable peeler to slice the cheese - grated would be OK, but larger pieces are nicer.

Home-Style Bruschetta
4 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper
1/4 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil (divided)
1 loaf ciabatta bread (square flat slab style if possible)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
handful fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces or chopped
lots of sliced Parmesan cheese
Toss tomatoes with vinegar, salt, pepper and 1 tbsp. of the olive oil. Set aside at room temperature for half an hour. If using a loaf of bread, cut 8 3/4-inch slices; otherwise, slice flat bread in half horizontally then into quarters, to make 8 pieces. Drizzle remaining olive oil over top and toast in a hot oven (400 F) until crispy and brown. Quickly rub each portion with the cut side of a piece of garlic - be generous and thorough. Strain tomatoes - don't worry about a little liquid, but the salt draws moisture and that will make the toast soggy; combine with basil. Divide mixture among toasts, top with lovely slabs of Parmesan cheese and serve right away.
• • •
Usually I steer clear of frozen dessert toppings, but it just plain works in this recipe. You can put this mixture in store-bought maryanns or on slices of pound cake or angel food cake. Use as filling for a chocolate or graham crumb pie crust or spoon into baked tart shells. Triple the quantity of liquid and double the fruit - maybe adding some chopped oranges or bananas - and serve in dessert glasses as is. Use light cream cheese and light dessert topping if you like. Versatile or what? If you have crepe fear, buy the pre-made, but once you give it a try you will realize it's easy. Even if they aren't pretty by themselves, when they are filled you'll hear only oohs and aahs. If you want a gooey sauce for the top, go for it, but I prefer the simplicity and freshness of strawberries all by themselves. This recipe makes 6 large dessert crepes or 12 smaller ones.

Light Strawberry Cheesecake Crepes
3 cups fresh strawberries, trimmed and diced
1/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp. orange liqueur or orange juice
2 eggs
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1 cup flour
2 tbsp. sugar
3 tbsp. melted butter
8 oz. softened cream cheese
1 small tub thawed frozen dessert topping
1 tbsp. lemon juice
Stir together strawberries, sugar and liqueur. Cover and refrigerate at least an hour, but up to 2 days. To prepare the crepes, combine eggs, milk, water, flour and sugar in a blender, food processor or mixer and whiz until well combined. Beat or whiz in the butter and allow batter to rest 1 hour. Brush a non-stick pan with oil and pour in about 1/6 of the batter - to tell the truth, I always make a small tester to start. Tip the pan quickly to allow the batter to cover the bottom. Don't worry about little holes around the edges. As soon as the edges start to lift from the pan, grab one side gently and flip it over with your fingers - use a spatula if you need help. The colour should be barely golden and splotchy, not brown. Wait a few seconds, just until the bottom is dry, and remove from pan. Continue until you are out of batter, separating the crepes with waxed paper. For the filling, stir together cream cheese, dessert topping and lemon juice. Add about 2/3 of the strawberry mixture, stirring until well combined. Divide filling among crepes. Spread on each crepe, going nearly to the edges. Roll up loosely and place on serving plate. Garnish with remaining diced strawberries and serve. If you're going for elegance, add a sprig of mint.

Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John's. Questions may be sent to her
c/o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John's, NL, A1E 4N1.

Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: North America, St. John's

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