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Think green -- think asparagus

Recipe: Celebrate the new season with an easy vegetable side

White plate with green asparagus and red bowl with mustard sauce
Fresh asparagus heralds the change of season. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

I'm so happy to see asparagus show up. It means spring is arriving and all the other great vegetables of the season will soon follow.

Grilled asparagus is my favorite, but roasted is right behind. And with propane still hard to find (thanks, Covid-19), I'd just as soon use my oven as much as possible now to cook and hope I can fire up the grill for real later.

Asparagus stalks, a leek, some parsley and a small cup of capers
Thicker asparagus stalks stand up to roasting.

This roasting recipe, adapted from one by the New York Times' Melissa Clark, specifically calls for fatter asparagus stalks, which I prefer anyway. I grew up in Stockton, which once was the center of asparagus farming in California. Something about that Delta soil, I think.

Fatter asparagus comes from plants just beginning to produce, and though a thick stalk has a tough end,  its flesh actually is more tender than a thin one. I tend to snap the ends off, because I don't have the patience to peel the stalks. The ends can be saved to make soup or can be steamed and chopped to add to other dishes.

The sauce here is optional but it is excellent. Just saying. And don't skip the fresh lemon juice -- it cuts through the richness of the Dijon mustard beautifully.

Roasted asparagus with crispy leeks and capers

Serves 3-4 as a first course or side

Ingredients:

1 pound thick asparagus stalks (1/2-inch diameter or larger), ends trimmed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Asparagus, leeks and capers on baking pan
The vegetables are easy to prepare and roast.
1 large leek, cleaned and trimmed to the light green and white part, then split lengthwise and thinly sliced

2 tablespoons drained capers

1 lemon, halved, then cut into 8 wedges (some will be used in the sauce)

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

For sauce:

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons drained capers, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Instructions:

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Place trimmed asparagus on a rimmed baking sheet and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Put the leek slices in a bowl and stir in the other 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Scatter the leeks over the asparagus on the pan, then scatter the capers over that.

Roast the asparagus 12-18 minutes, until the asparagus is tender and showing some golden brown.

Make the sauce while the asparagus is roasting. Stir together the mustard, capers and garlic in a bowl, then slowly stir in, 1 at a time, the 2 tablespoons of olive oil until it forms a thickish emulsion. Squeeze the juice from two of the lemon wedges into the sauce, and stir until combined. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Mustard sauce in a red bowl, lemon slices and parsley
I got a little carried away when cutting up the lemon.
Slicing each half into fourths is sufficient. Two
wedges of juice are used in the sauce.
When the asparagus comes out of the oven, squeeze two or three of the remaining lemon wedges over the stalks, then sprinkle the parsley over them.

Serve with the mustard sauce and the remaining lemon wedges on the side.

I highly recommend serving small white beans with this if it is part of a full meal -- the beans play especially well with the leeks and the mustard.

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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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