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in search of spring

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Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches–
William Carlos Williams, “Spring and All”

Spring comes to Chicago in fits and starts. We swing from freezing temperatures to upward of 70-degrees and back again, sometimes within the same day. The sun teases us into thinking we barely need jackets, but the wind off the lake reminds us that we should have brought gloves and heavy sweaters, and the ominous clouds urge us to carry umbrellas.

T.S. Eliot famously called April the cruellest month for wantonly stealing away winter’s comforting covers, and there have been years when I’ve been inclined to agree with his assessment. But this year, on the cusp of April, I find my thinking aligned with another poet, Kenneth Koch, wondering impatiently “When will there be a perfectly ordinary spring day?”

Maybe tomorrow, then again, in this city, maybe not until May, or June, or sometime next year…

This is a dish for a fitful early spring day. Asparagus might be the season’s quintessential vegetable. A good bunch can go a long way toward appeasing my impatience for the other parts of spring. Spaetzle, in contrast, are little bits of starchy comfort. These too often overlooked German dumplings consist only of flour, eggs, and water, and are easy to make. Swathed in a beurre blanc sauce, asparagus and spaetzle welcome the green and ward off the chill of a day that straddles spring and winter. This is simple and delicate and makes a lovely dinner with a basic green salad and a glass of wine.

Asparagus and spaetzle with beurre blanc sauce
Source: Adapted from Deborah Madison’s recipe for Asparagus Ragout in Vegetarian Suppers and Judy Rodgers’s recipe for Martha’s spaetzle in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

This is an unconventional riff on a beurre blanc sauce. I’ve exchanged red onions for shallots and reduced the butter in the traditional version. The red onions have a stronger flavor than shallots and add bright pink flecks to the sauce, making the effect rather less subtle than the original. You could certainly use shallots here if you prefer. I’ve jumped the gun a bit with asparagus from California. The local stuff doesn’t seem to be available around me yet, but I couldn’t resist and was rewarded with a bunch that tasted like it should. Out of season asparagus tends to taste flat and have a tough, woody texture, which makes it altogether disappointing. Look for bright green stalks with tightly closed tops for better flavor. The width of the stalks is unimportant to the flavor, but roasting times should be adjusted by a few minutes for particularly thick or thin specimens

For the beurre blanc

2 tablespoons champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons dry vermouth or dry white wine
1 tablespoon red onion, minced finely
3 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces

For the spaetzle

2/3 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup white whole wheat flour
2 eggs
6 tablespoons water
special equipment: Colander with 1/4 inch holes (or a spaetzle maker)

For the rest

about 3/4 pound asparagus, tough ends removed
small handful of button mushrooms, thinly sliced (optional)
olive oil

Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut asparagus into about 1-inch pieces, toss with a little bit of olive oil and place in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for about 10-15 minutes, or until tender.

Meanwhile, make the beurre blanc sauce. In a medium sauce pan, add vinegar, vermouth or wine, and red onion. Bring to a boil, reduced heat to medium-low and simmer until reduced to about 1 tablespoon. Remove from heat and whisk in butter, one piece at a time, until all the butter is added and the sauce is smooth and butter-colored. Set aside. (Check the asparagus, remove from oven and set aside.)

Make the spaetzle. Combine flour, eggs, and water in a medium bowl, and blend with a fork until well combined. In a wide saute pan or stock pot, bring water to a boil, and salt generously. Have a slotted spoon and a plate ready. Over the boiling water, place about a third of the batter into a colander and, with a flexible spatula, press the batter through the holes into the water. Be careful to avoid overcrowding the pot–there should be a little bit of room at the surface for the dumplings to move around. The spaetzle should float in about thirty seconds. (If they stick to the bottom of the pot, loosen them gently with a slotted spoon.) After they float, allow them to cook for about 1 minute. Drain them with a slotted spoon and place them in a single layer on a plate. Repeat with the rest of the batter.

In a saute pan over medium heat, add a thin coating of olive oil or butter, add mushrooms if using and spaetzle and saute until spaetzle are slightly browned and crisp. (You could omit this step, if not using mushrooms, and simply toss asparagus and spaetzle with the sauce.) Remove from heat, add asparagus and beurre blanc and stir. Season with salt and pepper.

Yields 2 servings

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