The Olive Garden (featuring Beer-Battered Asparagus with Fennel Pepper Dip)
One of the things that people who don’t cook every day can’t comprehend is how a recipe, followed to a tee, can taste different every time it’s made. I’m not talking about the cook’s skillset. This isn’t an example of a person accidentally swapping sugar for salt. I’m talking about how impossible it is to guarantee identical situations in all kitchens.
A tomato in March, for example, has absolutely no resemblance to a tomato in August. If it were possible through some science fiction time machinery to eat them side by side you would say they were completely different fruits– one rigid and devoid of flavor and the other pornographically luscious, juicy, and sweet.
But perhaps that’s too obvious an example of what can affect a meal. Seasonal vegetables are stories that write themselves. What about the humidity in your kitchen? Or the dusty paprika that your mother gave you in 1996? What about the rainfall in Italy the year your olive oil was produced? Not to mention the little mishaps that occur – someone calls while you’re reducing a sauce and half of it bubbles away, you accidentally slice your finger, and while you’re struggling to unwrap a bandaid you slightly overbake a tart. It all plays a part in the final product. This isn’t the major destruction of a meal. It’s the teensy weensy variations of character that food takes on in different situations. That’s why cooking is exciting. It’s slightly different every time.
Years ago, at a party where I knew almost no one, I had a long conversation with a friend of a friend who had worked as a server in the Times Square Olive Garden, truly the belly of the beast in my opinion. He regaled me with stories about the lengths to which The Olive Garden will go to make sure that their food is EXACTLY THE SAME whether you’re in an Olive Garden in Duluth or Tokyo or, god forbid, Rome (yup, there’s one there). There are technicians in lab coats employed to guarantee that the results of their recipes will be identical in each of the 893 Olive Gardens throughout the world.
I can’t even begin to tell you how chilling I find that.
Do you know how hard it would be to create exactly the same meal 365 days a year globally if you were using fresh food? It would be impossible. I know The Olive Garden is fast food with waiters, but the word “garden” is in their friggin’ name.
But this isn’t a blog post where I berate consumers for not eating the highest quality, freshest food on the market. I find that snooty chef tone to be both predictable and exclusionary. I’ve been to farmer’s markets where I couldn’t afford anything. Just last week I walked away from a $15 head of butterleaf lettuce. FIFTEEN DOLLARS FOR ONE HEAD OF LETTUCE. I completely understand the financial discrimination that exists for food these days and I won’t chastise anyone for their choices. I think people who cook develop relationships with the products they prefer. They spend more when they think it’s worth it, but know when it’s ok to take the cheap route.
I lied to you. I went back and bought the $15 head of butter lettuce after I walked away twice. It was Ireland countryside green and as large as a ballerina’s tutu. I had the cash in my pocket and I know that the farmers have had a much harder year(s) than I have. It was crunchy and vibrant, well worth the price I paid, but again, I’m not editorializing about expensive produce or guilting you into supporting farmers. I’m just choosing not to lie about my actions for the sake of a good example in my story.
Maybe the secret is that when something is in season it floods the market so the price of the item drops… or it should (unfortunately, many grocery stores and farmer’s markets don’t drop the cost of something when it’s in big supply).
I love food that tastes like the month you’re in. It wakes you up to all the possibilities for that season. It feels like the first page of a really good short story.
So listen, Olive Garden, I’ve got a bunch of peak-season asparagus that tastes a little bit different from the bunch I bought last week and I’m going to celebrate each stalk’s individuality.
And, just FYI, olives aren’t grown in a garden. They grow on trees in a grove. The picture that my mind paints of an “olive garden” is one with a gorgeous Italian woman in a sundress holding a basket of ripe zucchini, rosy tomatoes, and a bouquet of basil. She’s plucking an olive from the single olive tree in an overflowing vegetable garden and playfully popping it into her mouth. But of course, raw olives are disgusting. You can’t eat them. They have to be brined/ cured for weeks to make them delicious. So you see, they’ve told us exactly who they are and we choose to believe them or not. The Olive “Garden” is a work of fiction. Thanks, I’ll pass.
Here is a wonderful way to celebrate asparagus season. I know, I know, it’s fried! But the asparagus is fried so quickly that it retains its bright flavor and snap. These disappear quickly every time I cook them.
Beer-battered Asparagus with Fennel Pepper Dip
I’m breaking this down into 3 different recipes that can be used separately or together.
The first recipe is the fennel pepper which is a brilliant rub for fish or chicken before it’s seared, a magical addition to many sauces (I almost always put a teaspoon or two into marinara), and a spectacular ingredient for this dip. I have a spice grinder so I use the seeds and grind them down, but you can use ground ingredients in the same ratios.
(you will not use all of this in the dip)
- 2 teaspoons ground fennel seed
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon coriander
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Mix together.
Fennel Pepper Dip
Makes ½ cup of dip
- ¼ cup mayonnaise
- ¼ cup sour cream
- 2 ½ teaspoons fennel pepper
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- Mix together.
Beer battered asparagus
- 1 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed
- ½ cup rice flour
- ½ cup cornstarch
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup beer
- Fry oil
- In a 2-cup measuring cup or tall glass, stir together the rice flour, cornstarch, and salt. Slowly add the beer (it will bubble up) and stir until it’s blended.
- Heat oil to 350 degrees in a shallow pan (this is a perfect job for a cast iron pan).
- Dip the asparagus spear into the batter, leaving an inch unbattered so that people can grab the unbattered part when they take it from the platter.
- Fry for 30 seconds to a minute, depending on the thickness of your asparagus.
Here’s a clip of me making this on KATU’s show Afternoon Live: