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Look ahead to spring with an easy phyllo tart

Recipe: Early asparagus featured in brunch or dinner dish

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With fresh asparagus and herbs, this tart previews spring. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

I know, I know -- it's a little early for local asparagus. But those green spears already are showing up in supermarkets, and I am more than ready after too many months of winter squash and spinach. Artichokes are coming in, too, but asparagus is more versatile, not to mention so much easier to prepare.

My homeland is the Central Valley: I grew up in Stockton, aka California's Asparagus Capital for many, many years. The planting acreage in the state has dropped considerably, and Delta asparagus is harder to find these days, but it's not completely gone. 

The San Joaquin Asparagus Festival  came along after I had moved away, and it nearly died a few years ago, but Stockton still is identified with this lovely early-spring vegetable. So consider this a nod to a Central Valley tradition, and keep a sharp eye out for local asparagus to show up at farmers markets. This recipe works especially well for brunch on Easter. The supply should be plentiful by then.

A few notes: I prefer fat asparagus (which comes from younger plants, did you know?) because it grills so well, but this recipe works better with the skinnier spears, medium to pencil-thin. If you buy it ahead, treat the spears gently. I find that fitting the whole bunch into a wide drinking glass half-filled with water, then putting it in the refrigerator, helps keep the spears from drying out.

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Just a few ingredients in the tart.

There is one ingredient here from my garden: the fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley. I finally have enough to use in recipes. Plant a sixpack and you'll have plenty, even if one plant bolts early. But now I have to work on thyme; I really need more, and who doesn't? (Sorry, gardener pun).

This tart uses phyllo dough as a base. Phyllo can seem scary, with all those layers, but it's easier to work with if it's properly thawed. Put the frozen sheets in the refrigerator overnight, and they'll be ready when you need them. And don't worry if the sheets rip when you're working with them. Just keep layering them up, and no one will know or care when the tart is baked.

Herbed ricotta, asparagus and phyllo tart
Adapted slightly from Cooking Light
Serves 8

Ingredients :

3/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 tablespoons low-fat milk
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
12 frozen phyllo sheets (14-by-9-inch), thawed
3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 bunch medium asparagus spears, 1 to 1-1/2 pounds
1 ounce Parmesan cheese, shaved (about 1/4 cup)

Instructions:

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A kitchen ruler helps when trimming asparagus,
but it doesn't have to be exact

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Stir together the ricotta, parsley, milk, thyme, garlic and 3/8 teaspoon salt.

Place 1 phyllo sheet on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. (Cover remaining dough to keep it from drying out.) Lightly brush phyllo sheet with oil,  and top with another phyllo sheet. Repeat layers with remaining phyllo sheets and oil, reserving 1 teaspoon oil to brush on asparagus.

Trim asparagus to 6 1/2 inches long (save the cut ends for stir fry). Spread ricotta mixture on the phyllo stack, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Arrange asparagus spears side by side over ricotta mixture. Brush asparagus with remaining 1 teaspoon oil.

Bake until phyllo is browned and crisp, 18 to 22 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt and top with the shaved Parmesan.




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Garden Checklist for week of April 14

It's still not warm enough to transplant tomatoes directly in the ground, but we’re getting there.

* April is the last chance to plant citrus trees such as dwarf orange, lemon and kumquat. These trees also look good in landscaping and provide fresh fruit in winter.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden needs nutrients. Fertilize shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash.

* Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias.

* Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom.

* Mid to late April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce seedlings. Choose varieties that mature quickly such as loose leaf.

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