Asparagus: Stalk of the town

Asparagus quiche with a phyllo crust
Asparagus quiche with a phyllo crust Detroit Free Press

You grow up in the Central Valley, you know asparagus. No canned, limp stuff here. Those in the know go for the fattest, freshest stalks they can find – the thick ones are from the youngest, healthiest plants.

Steamed, broiled, blanched or (yum!) grilled, asparagus means spring in the Valley.

For anyone who can’t get enough on their own, there’s the San Joaquin (formerly Stockton) Asparagus Festival, now held at the San Joaquin County fairgrounds in Stockton. The festival has moved up a bit on the calendar – this year it runs Friday, April 15, through Sunday, April 17.

Below are some recipes to whet your asparagus appetite.

San Joaquin Asparagus Festival

Where: San Joaquin County fairgrounds, 1658 S. Airport Way, Stockton

When: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, Friday-Sunday, April 15-17

Admission: $10; $7 for teens, seniors and military; $5 for ages 6-12. Under 5 admitted free. Parking is $6.

More info: 209-466-5041;

Asparagus quiche with phyllo crust

Prep time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Serves 8

You can rewrap and freeze the unused phyllo dough. Recipe from and tested by Susan Selasky for the Detroit Free Press.

4 large eggs

1 cup low-fat milk

1/2 cup fat-free or low-fat half-and-half

1 1/4 cups Italian-blend cheese

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning

Salt and pepper to taste

8 sheets phyllo dough, thawed, 9-by-14-inch sheets

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 1/2 cups asparagus, cut in 1-inch pieces, plus 8 spears, about 3 inches long, with tips

1 1/2 cups frozen leaf spinach or fresh spinach

4 thin slices of tomatoes

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have ready a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate. In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, half-and-half, cheese, Italian seasoning, flour, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Set the phyllo on a clean work surface and cover with a damp paper towel. Working with one sheet at a time, brush it lightly in streaks with the melted butter. Place one sheet in the pie plate in the center, allowing at least 1 inch to hang over the edge. Brush another sheet and place it on top of the first one crosswise. Continue brushing the sheets with butter and layering them in this fashion, making sure you have an overhang around the entire edge. Fold the overhang over to form an edge and brush with butter.

Bake for 6-8 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the asparagus pieces and sauté 3 to 5 minutes. Add the spinach and sauté 2 minutes or until almost dry. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Remove partially baked phyllo crust from the oven. Place the asparagus-spinach mixture over the bottom of the crust. Pour the milk mixture over the asparagus. Arrange tomato slices in the center and then arrange the 8 asparagus spears in a circular pattern out from the tomato slices.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until filling is set and slightly puffy. If the edges begin to brown too quickly, cover them loosely with foil.

When filling is set, remove from the oven and let sit 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Per serving: 234 calories (52 percent from fat), 14 g fat (7 g saturated fat), 16 g carbohydrates, 12 g protein, 367 mg sodium, 129 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber.

Pasta primavera with asparagus and peas

Time: 20 minutes

Serves 4

This simple pasta primavera uses a combination of the earliest vegetables available in spring – asparagus, peas and spring onions — making it a true celebration of the season. The sauce works best with springy egg pasta, preferably homemade or a good purchased brand. Make sure not to overcook it; you need the chewy bite to stand up to the gently cooked vegetables. If you can’t find good fresh English peas, you can substitute frozen peas, but don’t add them until the last minute of cooking. Recipe from Melissa Clark.

¼ pound sugar snap peas, stems trimmed

½ pound asparagus, ends snapped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

¾ cup fresh English peas

¼ cup thinly sliced spring onion, white part only (or use shallot)

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ teaspoon fine sea salt, more as needed

Black pepper, more as needed

12 ounces fettuccine or tagliatelle, preferably fresh

⅔ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano, at room temperature

½ cup crème fraîche or whole milk Greek yogurt, at room temperature

3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped tarragon

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. While the water is coming to a boil, slice snap peas and asparagus stems into 1/4-inch-thick pieces; leave asparagus tips whole.

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add snap peas, asparagus, English peas and onion. Cook until vegetables are barely tender (but not too soft or mushy), 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook 1 minute more. Season with salt and pepper; set aside.

Drop pasta into boiling water and cook until al dente (1 to 3 minutes for fresh pasta, more for dried pasta). Drain well and transfer pasta to a large bowl. Immediately toss pasta with vegetables, Parmigiano-Reggiano, crème fraîche and herbs. Season generously with salt and pepper, if needed.

Morels, asparagus, ramps and crème fraîche over grits

Serves 4

Make ahead: The cooked grits can be refrigerated for up to 5 day; warm over low heat, whisking in some water or vegetable broth to return them to creaminess before serving. Recipe adapted from “The Broad Fork,” by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, $35, 336 pages).

1 cup white or yellow corn grits

4 cups water

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup minced shallots

4 ounces (2 cups) fresh morel mushrooms, washed and cut into thick rounds (may substitute another mushroom of your choice)

2 large ramps with greens, chopped (may substitute 1 scallion plus 2 cloves garlic)

8 asparagus spears (woody ends trimmed), cut into 1-inch pieces

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1/4 cup homemade or no-salt-added vegetable broth

1/4 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1/2 cup crème fraîche (may substitute sour cream or Greek-style yogurt)

Freshly ground black pepper

Finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Whisk the grits into the water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat; bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Add the 1/2 teaspoon of salt, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. You will be moving forward with the rest of the recipe, but what you are looking for in the grits is a velvety-soft polenta texture, a bit thinner than you would envision. (The grits will set up as soon as you put them on the plate.) If you think the grits are too thick, add a touch of water to bring them to the desired consistency.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once it’s foamy, stir in the shallots. Cook until tender, 1 minute, then add the morels. Cook until the mushrooms smell wonderful, look a little limp and are browning slightly at the edges, 4 to 5 minutes.

Add the ramps and asparagus, then the vinegar; cook briefly, stirring and scraping up any bits from the bottom of the pan, then add the broth. Taste and season with salt as needed; cook until the asparagus is barely crisp-tender, 3 minutes.

Stir in the thyme, parsley and crème fraîche, and remove from the heat. Taste, and add salt and/or pepper as needed.

Divide the grits among individual plates. Spoon equal amounts of the morel mixture at the center of each portion. Sprinkle with parsley; serve right away.