Asparagus – A Portent of Spring

In Virginia and Maryland one of the first crops to herald the arrival of spring is fresh asparagus. Stores will display early examples towards the end of February but for the best and cheapest of the harvest wait until April and May. It is rightly regarded as a delicacy amongst vegetables and often comes with a hefty price tag, reflecting not only its luxury status but also the fact that it has to be harvested by hand. A member of the lily family and therefore related to onions, garlic and leeks, the green variety is the most common, but there are also white and purple varieties; and though freezing and canning enable round year availability, there is nothing like the delicate taste of fresh asparagus. Its popularity is undeniable: the United States is the world’s fourth largest grower – about 75% of the country’s crop comes from California – whilst at the same time being the product’s major importer. Asparagus spears don’t react well to over-cooking, though they are amenable to poaching, grilling, and steaming. They are equally at home blended into soup or served cold in a salad, but there are many who will only ever eat their asparagus simply lightly grilled or poached and dipped in melted butter or olive oil. Try it as an antipasti wrapped in paper-thin slices of Parma ham. It was in the lands around the east of the Mediterranean over two thousand years ago that the cultivation of asparagus first began. The Greeks and Romans valued it for its unique delicate flavor and texture, and it was also recognized as possessing medicinal properties. It became popular in England and France during the 16th century and it was brought to America by early colonists at about this time. Many ailments can be prevented and relieved by the healthy nutrients that abound densely in asparagus. Most importantly these include:

  • Cancer. Prevention is promoted by the presence of anti-oxidants and glutathione.
  • Heart Disease. Regular consumption of asparagus can help strengthen a weak or enlarged heart.
  • Rheumatism and Arthritis. Asparagus can provide an anti-inflammatory relief.

Always go for straight, firm spears with tight-closed tips when shopping for asparagus. Thickness of the spear is a matter of personal taste and may depend on how the asparagus is to be prepared. Needless to say, it should as far as possible be eaten fresh, but it may be kept for up to three days without too much deterioration wrapped in plastic and stored in a refrigerator.

D.C. Half-Smoke – A Hot Dog but Not As We Know It

The half-smoke has been described as a local D.C. delicacy but in truth it’s about as delicate as an air raid, though definitely none the worse for that. Nor indeed should it ever be called a hot dog, meat though it surely is, admittedly tubular and dog-like in shape, and it’s served on a bun; but there the similarities end. It comes larger and thicker than a regular frankfurter, with meat of a coarser grind, often comprising equal quantities of beef and pork, and unlike its typical Teutonic antecedent it is a smoked product. With the standard smothering of onion, herbs, chili, and mustard, the overall unexpected effect is somewhat more torridly complex than that of the usual chili dog. Possibly the capital’s only indigenous dish, and certainly the quintessential street food of D.C., half-smokes are available from hot dog carts all over the city yet are surprisingly difficult to locate anywhere other than in the D.C. area. They come grilled, steamed, or heated dirty water style, and with topping variations on the chili, mustard, and onion theme. Throughout America these days it seems to be a must that the vote-worthiness of politicians and the credentials of celebrities in general are linked to their affection for a hot dog. In D.C. this means being photographed grappling with a half-smoke in the local landmark restaurant, Ben’s Chili Bowl, or at the Weenie Beenie in South Arlington. Luminaries such as Bill Cosby and President Obama have famously visited Ben’s Chili Bowl in recent years and have not found the restaurant’s celebrated “secret recipe” half-smoke wanting in any respect. It was D.C.’s Briggs and Co. meatpackers who produced the first half-smoke sausages in the 1930s or ‘40s, though that company has now been sold on, and these days the best examples are held to come from the Manger Packing Corp. in Maryland who supply both Ben’s Chili Bowl and Weenie Beenie. So where does the name half-smoke come from? There are those who believe cryptically that it’s because the sausage is only halfway smoked – we are left to guess what this may mean. Others favor the explanation that it’s often made from half and half beef and pork, whilst there are also some who believe it reflects the habit of many chefs who split the sausage in half before grilling. No one is sure, but who cares, next time you’re downtown grab a half-smoke and celebrate a unique D.C. treasure.

Chicken Maryland – Different the World Over

The precise associations of this historic dish with the state for which it is named seem to have got lost in the mists of time. So much so that it can’t even decide whether to call itself “Chicken Maryland” or “Maryland Chicken”. However, what is clear is what differentiates it from other Southern fried chicken recipes. The Maryland version is not deep fried in oil or shortening, instead being shallow fried in a skillet until browned, and then covered over a reduced heat for up to 40 minutes to allow the chicken pieces to steam as well as fry. Cream or milk is then added to the pan juices to produce an accompanying cream gravy. Some recipes include overnight marinating of the chicken in buttermilk to tenderize the meat prior to cooking. Whilst there is no specific provenance for the suggestion, it is likely that the idea of serving the dish with a sauce originated in Maryland, and is the probable origin for the name. “Maryland Fried Chicken” seems to have appeared in print for the first time in 1878 as a menu item at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, New York, although there is no record of how the dish was prepared and presented. Unlike many Southern fried chicken recipes which call for complex herb and spice mixtures in their coatings, traditional Maryland recipes include only basic seasonings with a flour, breadcrumb, or occasionally batter coating; though the lists of herbs and spices used can vary, especially in recipes handed down through the generations in many Maryland families. Elsewhere in the world, Chicken Maryland has various other meanings:

  • In Australia it refers not to a cooked dish but to a cut of chicken comprising the leg elements of thigh and drumstick.
  • In the UK it was a fashionable dish of the 1960s and ‘70s consisting of fried chicken accompanied by corn and banana fritters.
  • The Argentineans enjoy their “Suprema de Pollo Maryland” where a breaded schnitzel of chicken breast is served topped with a fried egg along with creamed corn, fried banana, and French fries.
  • In France the great chef, Escoffier, published a “Chicken a la Maryland” recipe whereby pan-fried chicken was served with a garnish of bananas.

Whether or not offering the Escoffier recipe, an entry on the last first class luncheon menu produced onboard RMS Titanic was for “Chicken a la Maryland”.

Ciabatta

The Italian word for slipper is ciabatta and the shape of this bread does admittedly bear a passing resemblance to such floppy footwear, being flattish, broad, and somewhat elongated. Cut vertically, you could just about accommodate an anchovy between two pieces, but sliced horizontally, it’s ideal for sandwiches, especially pressed and toasted panini. It also sits comfortably alongside other Italian favorites like olives, prosciutto, cheese, and chianti on a rustic luncheon platter. To all appearances ciabatta has the attributes anyone would expect of a traditional, artisan bread, with a long history celebrated in folklore and myth. You could cheerfully imagine Michaelangelo, taking a break while his latest Sistine Chapel fresco dried, tucking into a goats’ cheese panino; or Catherine de Medici preparing a belladonna-laced savory spread for some unwelcome dinner guest to eat with his slipper-bread. And surely it was to liberate the then secret recipe for ciabatta that the Vandals set out to pillage Rome in the 5th century. Alas, none of these flights of fancy turns out to be true. The genesis of modern ciabatta dates back only to 1982, though other breads bearing the name may have preceded it. In Italy, as in the rest of the developed world in 1982, the market for sandwiches had grown more and more valuable as people sought convenience foods that would fit better with their increasingly busy lifestyles. But with unsuitable indigenous breads dating from more relaxed times, massive imports of sandwich-friendly baguettes from France were starting to dominate the market, and it was a miller from Adria near Venice called Arnaldo Cavallari who decided it was time to strike back. He analyzed and experimented with various regional breads, using his own flour to try out new dough recipes and baking times, and eventually produced the slipper-shaped loaf he named Ciabatta Polesano after the area where he worked. Throughout Italy the baguette insurgency was soon thwarted and the ciabatta loaf turned its attentions to the rest of the world. The bread was introduced to America in the early 1990s and mass production spread quickly around the nation as the popularity of pressed and toasted panini grew.