The story of a mis-read recipe

Healthy eating in these days of fast food and prepackaged meals is sometimes tricky. Kids are trained by advertising to want Happy Meals, adults are sold nicely-presented ready-to-eat meals, promising well-crafted recipes designed in those TV-studio-style kitchens by real chefs in those funny chef hats (what are they about, anyway?) Thankfully, the outrageous French accent is optional nowadays. Walk down the aisle of any modern supermarket, whether it's Sainsbury's or Safeway, Trader Joe's or Tesco and you see the problem. Row upon row of colourful displays, promising culinary treats, all ready to be taken home and microwaved and enjoyed. Once upon a time, these things were known (and despised) as "TV dinners", now they are just as much a part of our everyday lives as the telly and SUVs..

But it was not always thus, and the pendulum may be swinging back. The slow food movement encourages people to think about food as a pleasure in itself, and everything from the choice and purchase of ingredients to the preperation, cooking and presentation of the meal, is important and not to be rushed. This isn't just about wealthy gourmets going to fancy restaurants to purchase overly-expensive dishes made with endangered species and spritzed with rare and fragrant herbs gathered from Himalayan hermit middens, this is about ordinary people being interested in food, and cooking it.

So this story begins with a perfectly ordinary day at work for me, pretty much. There was a pay statement, which was nice, and also the regular health newsletter from some company associated with our health insurance provider, full of tips to keep us out of the doctor's office, and hence cost the insurance company less. So anyway, this particular issue had this recipe within, and given that my great friend and best man, Jim, grows asparagus in great quantity, and that it's fresh and yummy every Saturday, I looked even more closely at it.

Just to set the scene, I work in the produce department of our local food co-op in Davis, California. My day largely consists of preparing the fruit and veg for display, arranging the displays and advising the customers on preparing the food, meeting local chefs who come in for their ingredients and talking about food ideas. I enjoy most elements of it, especially as our co-op does try very hard to obtain good, fresh, locally-grown stuff. We know many of the local farmers, who often deliver their goodies personally. It makes for a great job, by and large.

The Ingredients

The Method

Break off the tough bottom ends of the asparagus (though the Purple Passion variety is more tender, you may be able to cook the whole, if it's fresh) and cut into 1½ inch chunks. Mix the sweetener and vinegar together and set on one side while you oil up the pan and heat it gently. Sauté the garlic for a minute or so, until soft, then add the asparagus and cook until that's just tender (5 minutes should suffice). Now stir in the vinegar mix, and the seasonings, cook for another couple of minutes. Serve hot, sprinkled with the nuts and, um, bacon.

Getting The Ingredients

I will guide you through the process from start to finish, and give you tips on how to get the very best from the "slow food" process at every stage.

Get into your SUV or 3.4 litre truck and drive the mile and a half from dull suburbia to the store, despite the fact that Davis has cycle lanes pretty much everywhere. Park your car, truck or Humvee as close to the store as possible, to avoid any unnecessary walking. That space with the wheelchair painted in it? That'll do nicely. Get out of the car, not forgetting to leave behind any reuseable bags (yes, even the one that the store just recently gave you for Earth Day) and get yourself a cart (shopping trolley, for the Brits).

Go into the store like you own the place (if you shop at the Co-op, you may do this with great aplomb, if you're a Co-op member – you bought shares, remember?) Aim for the produce department. That's where they keep the fruits, and vegetables. And herbs and stuff too. You'll be faced with a bewildering variety of choices, if you have never bought actual fresh stuff before. There's "conventional" and "organic", for a start – what's all that about? Oh, you spot someone stacking fruit, you could ask him. He's clearly not as bright as you are, given that you've got degrees and stuff, and he's just a shelf-stocker, but he does have his pride, and who knows? He may actually know something.

Ask him about the difference between organic and conventional produce. Initially ignore anything he says that doesn't explain why the one is more expensive than the other, because you're fairly sure that organic food is just another way of parting fools from their money.

If anyone should suggest getting the fresh, locally-grown stuff that hasn't been sprayed with unknown chemicals, don't forget to make odious comparisons with the better-looking stuff in the "non-organic" cases. This especially applies to apples and other fruit. This has uneven sizes and *shudder* blemishes, whereas that one is nice and round and shiny. Just like the apple in Snow White, in fact... Also ignore arguments that buying from local farmers rather than huge agri-businesses is better for the local economy and environment, let alone ethically a world away.

So you finally decide to pick your asparagus, only to discover to your horror that you have yet another choice to make, this time between green and purple! You discover, after careful questioning, that the purple variety is sweeter, has less lignin (more tender, less tough stem to throw away) and has a subtle nutty flavour. Now it's time for the herbs. Re-read the recipe. Realise that you have no idea what "worm tarragon" is, and it doesn't help that the clerk just chuckles gently when you ask him. Does one have to eat the worm? Oh, it's okay – fresh tarragon is in season, apparently, so you try to pick out the biggest bunch you can (forgetting that you need less than a tablespoon). This ensures that the poor employee has to rearrange all those herbs in the case. Still, he should be grateful, it's keeping him in a job, isn't it?

Go through the rest of the store in similar vein, not forgetting to leave your cart/trolley in the middle of aisles from time to time. During your trip through the store, you'll discover all sorts of "useful" stuff, like why Splenda™ is preferable to sugar (you can ignore the stuff about the fact that there haven't been any long-term tests of the product, and that it does break down into 1,6-dichlorofructose, a chemical whose effects on the human metabolism is similarly untested). Sea salt, you decide, is just like kosher salt, unneeded and expensive. Regular old cooking salt will do just fine. And why buy more vinegar, when I have some apple cider vinegar back home? Gah.

But Seriously, About These Ingredients

Okay, I ranted enough about my customers back there, people like that are a vanishingly small minority. It's just that they do stand out against the backdrop of perfectly fine customers that I deal with for the vast majority of my workday. There are still things that puzzle me here in this ingredient list, and the untested Splenda is the very least of them. What's with the "turkey bacon"? Part of me knows that turkey meat is lower in fats and so on, but it actually doesn't taste like bacon! And I worry about whatever it is that they add to it to make it taste that way. Then there's the olive oil spray. What's that about? We actually have perfectly good olive oil in bottles, I don't need to add propellants to the mix, thank you!

Sea salt I kind of get - it adds other minerals that supposedly make it not just taste good, but do you good. I'm no food scientist, but I like things to taste better for me. We have kosher salt in the house, goodness knows why. The rest of the stuff I get - balsamic vinegar does taste good, sufficiently so that it's worth keeping in the larder, pepper likewise. I use mixed peppercorns and grind them as I need them, and I can tell the difference. Toasted pecans? Well, toast any nut and the Maillard Reaction changes the taste, usually for the better. Herbs? Say no more, This very afternoon I will be planting some tarragon in our little herb patch at home.

That stuff about asparagus is all true, as well. I learned to love asparagus in the past two years, and it's one of those spring staples for me now, whether steamed, sautéed or even barbecued. You can stick the Splenda up your nose though, I'll be adding honey to the mix here at the wertperch ranch.


Accordia Health brokerage
Original recipe, for "Asparagus with warm tarragon vinaigrette" by Mary Goodbody (no, really!)

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