Eric Akis: Fresh B.C. asparagus, three ways

Eric Akis

Asparagus is in season, and its fine flavour and colour always inspire me to prepare it in all sorts of ways.

If you’ve followed this column over the years, you’ll know that soup is one of the things I like to make with asparagus. In past soup recipes, I’ve combined it with such things as spinach and leeks, since asparagus blends well with other ingredients.

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In today’s recipe, I blended it with canned artichokes and flavoured it Italian-style with such things as basil, garlic and Parmesan cheese. The end result was a very tasty soup you could serve for lunch with good bread.

I kept the Italian/Mediterranean theme going in today’s other two recipes.

One is a pita pizza topped with a creamy, lemon-zest-flavoured ricotta cheese mixture, bright green asparagus and other accents. The pita pizza can be served on its own or with a salad.

In the other recipe, B.C. halibut fillets, also in season, and blanched asparagus spears are wrapped in prosciutto and baked. It’s a simple but nice combination of tastes and textures, all bolstered by lemon basil mayo, which is served with the fish once plated.

B.C. asparagus is sold at some grocery stores and farmers markets that are still operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can also buy asparagus direct from a few farms. To find a list of farms that sell it, go to the Southern Vancouver Island Direct Farm Marketing Association website, islandfarmfresh.com, click on menu and search asparagus.

Asparagus Ricotta Pita Pizza

Creamy ricotta and bright green B.C. asparagus star in these easy-to-make pizzas, which use Greek-style pita for their base. Serve wedges of the pizza as a snack or an appetizer. Or turn them into lunch or dinner by serving them with a caesar or green salad.

Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 15 to 17 minutes
Makes: two pizzas, about three or four servings

6 to 8 asparagus spears, with the tough lower part of each spear removed

1 (250 mL) tub ricotta cheese (about 1 cup)

1/4 to 1/2 tsp minced fresh garlic

1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 Greek-style (pocketless) pita bread (see Note)

2 tsp extra virgin olive oil

2 to 3 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese, or to taste

1 to 2 tsp lemon juice

4 to 6 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced, or to taste

Bring a small pot of water to a boil. While it’s coming to temperature, cut each asparagus spear in half lengthwise. Cut each half piece of asparagus, crosswise, into about two-inch-long pieces.

Add the asparagus to the boiling water and cook two minutes, until bright green and just tender. Drain asparagus, cool with ice-cold water and drain again. Set asparagus on a plate, pat dry with paper towel or a kitchen towel and set aside until needed.

Set an oven rack in the lower third of your oven. Preheat oven to 425 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Set the pita on the baking sheet. Combine ricotta, garlic and lemon zest in a small bowl; season with salt and pepper. Spread the top of each pita with the ricotta mixture. Set some of the asparagus on each pita. Drizzle asparagus and ricotta with the olive oil, then sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese.

Bake pita pizzas in the lower third of the oven for 13 to 15 minutes, or until piping hot and the bottom of the pita is crispy. Transfer pita pizzas to a cutting board and let rest a minute or two. Drizzle with lemon juice, sprinkle with basil, cut into wedges and enjoy.

Note: Greek-style pita bread is sold in the deli department of many supermarkets. I used pita bread from the Vancouver Island company Eugene’s. You’ll find a list of stores selling it on their website, eugenes.ca.

Asparagus and Artichoke Soup

In this soup, B.C. asparagus is simmered and blended with canned artichokes hearts. The potatoes help to thicken the soup and Parmesan cheese further enhances its flavour.

Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: About 25 minutes
Makes: about six (1 cup) servings

1 (14 oz./398 mL) can artichokes hearts

2 tsp olive oil

1/2 medium onion, diced

1 large garlic clove, chopped

3 3/4 cups vegetable or chicken stock or broth

3/4 cup water

1/2 lb. asparagus, tough lower stems removed, spears cut into 1-inch pieces

1 1/2 cups peeled and cubed yellow-fleshed or russet potatoes

1 tsp dried basil

• salt and white pepper, to taste

• freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to taste

• chopped fresh parsley, to taste (optional)

Open the can of artichokes and drain well. Pick up of one of the artichokes, pull its leaves off and set them on a cutting board. Thinly slice those leaves, set them on a small plate and set aside until needed for garnishing the soup. Set the remaining artichokes on the cutting board and coarsely chop.

Place oil in a soup pot set over medium, medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook and stir three minutes. Now add the stock (or broth), water, asparagus, chopped artichokes, potatoes and basil.

Bring the soup to a gentle simmer, lowering heat as needed to maintain that simmer. Simmer soup until asparagus and potatoes are quite tender, about 15 minutes.

Purée the soup in a food processor or a blender, or right in the pot with an immersion (hand) blender. Return soup to a simmer, taste, then season with salt and pepper, as needed.

To serve, ladle soup into heated bowls, top each soup with some of the sliced artichoke hearts, Parmesan cheese and parsley, if using, and enjoy.

Prosciutto-wrapped Halibut with Asparagus and Lemon Basil Mayo

B.C. halibut and asparagus wrapped Italian-style with salty, silky prosciutto. Serve the fish with rice or risotto and sautéed zucchini and cherry tomatoes.

Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 17 minutes
Makes: two servings

3 Tbsp mayonnaise

1 1/2 tsp lemon juice

2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil (see Eric options)

• minced fresh garlic, to taste (optional)

10 (about 4-inch long) asparagus spears

2 (about 10-inch long), paper-thin slices prosciutto (see Note)

2 (5- to 6-oz/140- to 170-gram) halibut fillets

• freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 tsp olive oil (divided)

Combine mayonnaise, juice, basil and garlic, if using, in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate mayo until needed.

Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the asparagus and cook two minutes, until bright green and just tender. Drain asparagus, cool with ice-cold water and drain again. Pat asparagus dry with paper towel or a kitchen towel.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a shallow baking dish with parchment paper. Lay a slice of prosciutto on a work surface and set a piece of halibut at one end, skin-side down (see Eric’s options). Top the fish, lengthwise, with five asparagus spears. Drizzle asparagus and fish with 1 tsp olive oil; season with pepper (the prosciutto will add a salty taste).

Wrap the prosciutto around the fish and asparagus, then set on the baking sheet, ensuring the asparagus sits on top. Wrap the second piece of fish and the remaining asparagus in prosciutto as you did the first and set it on the baking sheet.

Bake fish in the middle of the oven 15 minutes, or until cooked through. Plate the fish and serve each portion with a nice dollop of the mayo.

Note: If can’t find two long pieces of prosciutto, for each piece of fish, slightly overlap two shorter pieces of it and wrap that around the fish and asparagus.

Eric’s options: If you don’t want to eat the skin on the fish, carefully remove it with a sharp, thin knife before wrapping the fish in the prosciutto. If you don’t have fresh basil, you could use dried basil, to taste, in the mayo. Or add pesto, to taste, to the mayo.

eakis@timescolonist.com

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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