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Simple dishes let Spring's bounty shine

I need no excuse to heavily season dishes when everyone lets me... I love curries, moles, adobo-type brasies, and pretty much anything else that requires a chin-stroking perusal of the spice cabinet. But as Spring approaches, even I start making simpler preparations to highlight one of our favorites: nice, crisp asparagus. These tender spears usually do best when they have your full attention, lending themselves to quick stir-frying over high heat with a slice or two of ginger, tossing with herbed oil and running under a broiler with a little garlic... always with a wedge of lemon and a dusting of salt and freshly ground pepper. <Salivation pause>

Whether you want them as fresh and green as possible or with a slight char, the key is quickness: the Romans used to say, if they wanted something in a hurry, “Do it in less time than it takes to cook asparagus.” Be sure to choose taut, firm stalks without a trace of wrinkling. Most important: if you do not plan on devouring immediately, stand your asparagus bundles (ends trimmed) in a bowl of shallow water on the counter. If you don't have the space, wrap them in a moist paper towel and put in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

For those who can only find large, woody asparagus, don't even bother trimming them with a knife: simpy bend the tough white part of the stalk and the spear will snap exactly where it becomes tender. For those feeling especially obsessive, work off some of that latent enthusiasm for small repetitive tasks by peeling your asparagus. Starting just below the tip, strip off the skin with a vegetable peeler. If you're sufficiently preoccupied with life and its many concerns, don't bother.

Speaking of being preoccupied, here's a nice, satisfying, and simple warm barley salad that takes virtually no time to prep and very little time to cook. A little umami from some sautéed mushrooms and green onions, a little lemon and parsley... a nice little quintet of flavors to infuse the tender barley with.

Bon appétit!

Warm Barley, Mushroom, and Asparagus Salad
4 to 6 servings


Bring to a boil:
     1 cup pearl barley
     4 cups water or light stock or broth 
     ½ to ¾ teaspoon salt
Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until barley is tender and liquid is absorbed mostly, about 20 minutes (if liquid remains, do not worry).
Meanwhile, heat in a small skillet over medium heat:
     3 tablespoons olive oil
     4 green onions, white part only, minced (reserve green tops)
Cook, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add:
     1 cup mushrooms, sliced
Cook, stirring, until the mushroom liquid is evaporated, 3 to 5 minutes. Thinly slice the reserved green onion tops and stir in, along with:
     ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
     1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 1 
     1 tablespoon minced parsley
     Salt and black pepper to taste
Remove from the heat. When the barley is tender, add and cook until bright green and tender, about 2 minutes:
     6 ounces asparagus, cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces (1½ cups)
Drain the barley and asparagus thoroughly, add the mushroom mixture, and adjust the seasoning. Serve warm.



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Preheat the oven to 400°F. With a paring knife, pierce in several places:
            2 medium eggplants (about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds)