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Flash in the Pan

Stalking the wild Mother’s Day asparagus

—Ari LeVaux
A Mother’s Day brunch menu without asparagus is like a tailgate party without beer. Un-American, that is. Every May, those gnomish green shoots are served with poached eggs and hollandaise, wrapped in bacon, creamed into soup, and baked into croissants with lobster in mom’s honor. But nobody ever seems to stop and wonder why. Sure, asparagus is in season in some parts of the world at that time, but so are radishes, spinach, and new potatoes.

Maybe it’s because asparagus is so rich in folic acid, a nutrient important for pregnant women. Or perhaps because all the B vitamins in asparagus will perk mom up. But I prefer to think it has something to do with the fact that back in the days when women were expected to be prim and proper, asparagus was one of the few foods you could eat with your hands in mixed company. This tidbit of culinary history comes from Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.

This exception to standard table decorum comes from the days when real silverware was common. Since asparagus will stain silver, it was preferable to just let people use their fingers when eating it, and the custom has lingered. And Miss Manners, ever the trickster, suggests we “have a marvelous time” exploiting the resultant loophole “in company or in restaurants and being reprimanded or at least stared at, only to have the disapproving people find out later that they were in the wrong.”

Now that, folks, is living. And as we all cross our fingers in hopes that Miss Manners will release an authoritative guide to partying like an etiquette expert, I take her asparagus exception as all the proof I need that the inclusion of asparagus is mom’s cue to let down her hair and enjoy her day to the fullest.

In keeping with Miss Manners’ permission, I’ve assembled three recipes for asparagus-based finger foods. But first, a few brief pointers on the proper handling of mother’s special vegetable.

Although some aficionados debate the respective merits of narrow- versus wide-diameter asparagus spears, I don’t notice a difference in taste.

But there certainly is a difference in cooking times, as the skinny members cook more quickly. So whatever you’re cooking, it pays to use like-diameter spears. Some thoughtful growers are careful to bunch them accordingly; some don’t, so be sure to select appropriately.

Also keep in mind that the tip end is the tender end of the shoot, while the root end can be so tough you might find yourself spitting wads of fiber—an act upon which Miss Manners definitely frowns. To separate the tender from the chewy, simply hold the spear tightly at both ends, and rotate the hand holding the root end. This will break the spear at the point where the woodiness ends, and you can discard the tough end.

Our first silverware-free asparagus recipe comes from the ancient Roman epicurean Marcus Apicius, author of the world’s oldest surviving cookbook, De Re Culinaria. He suggests pounding asparagus with pepper, lovage, coriander, savory, onion, wine, olive oil, eggs, and a fermented fish sauce called garum and baking.

I made a test batch of the stuff, dealing as best I could with the facts that no quantities are given, and my local store doesn’t stock garum. I used Thai fish sauce instead and substituted chervil for savory and lovage because that’s what I had on hand.

I started with a pound of (like-diameter) asparagus and broiled the spears for ten minutes in a cast-iron skillet with salt, pepper, and olive oil. I began pounding the asparagus with my heavy stone mortar and pestle, but decided to switch to a blender in search of silky-smooth consistency. I added a half-teaspoon each of black pepper and coriander, a quarter cup each of olive oil and white wine, a large egg, half an onion, salt to taste, and a few dribbles of fish sauce. Then I poured the green mixture into an oiled, cast-iron skillet and baked it at 350º until the top began to crack and brown (about 25 minutes), at which point I removed it from the oven to cool.

Expectations for this dish were so low that all it had to do to be considered a winner was to not suck. It didn’t need the handicap because the dish was quite good, tasting somewhat like spinach quiche. We ate it on crackers, but the next time around, I doubled the quantities, poured the blended mixture into a piecrust, and made asparagus quiche. I didn’t add cheese, but don’t let that stop you.

Another utensil-free mom’s day treat is asparagus mayonnaise, or asparagaise for short. Start by broiling a pound of asparagus as described above, and then transfer the still-hot spears to the blender. Add a few cloves of whole garlic—as many as mom would appreciate—along with enough olive oil to allow the mixture to blend into a smooth vortex. You can also add real mayo to the blender for a creamier product. Add salt to taste.

Asparagaise can be dipped with chips, crackers, carrot sticks, or even fingers, especially if you’re in mixed company and want to bait people into scowling at you.

My final recipe in this asparagus trilogy pushes the envelope of finger foods in that the spears are covered with a thick, brown garlic and oyster sauce that Miss Manners might not want on your fingers. But licking some oyster sauce off your fingers is a small price to pay for keeping your silver unstained.

Cut the asparagus into one- or two-inch lengths, and sauté in olive oil over medium heat for five minutes. Then add pressed, crushed, or minced garlic, and mix it in, stirring often, for another three to five minutes, depending on the girth of the shafts. Add two or three tablespoons of oyster sauce per pound of asparagus, kill the heat immediately, mix, and serve.

We may never know the true reason why asparagus has become the Mother’s Day mascot. But at least, thanks to Miss Manners, there will be fewer utensils to clean at the end of the day.


Five simple steps to cut down on gas costs

—John Felmy

Gas prices are rising across the country—and the primary reason is the cost of making fuel. While both supply and demand for gasoline have risen in the United States, the worldwide demand for crude oil is up, and the supply of crude oil is down. Middle East turmoil and loss of supply have further tightened markets. The increased crude oil costs and higher mandates for ethanol have made gasoline more expensive to make.

Fortunately, there are some simple steps that you can take to offset higher gas prices and keep more money in your wallet. Here are five of them:

  1. Drive slower. Driving at high speeds makes your engine run at more revolutions per minute—and consume more fuel. And when your car is traveling faster, it’s also facing greater air resistance, which requires the engine to work harder. So, don’t floor the accelerator unless it’s an emergency. Driving 55 miles per hour instead of 65 miles per hour can improve your car’s fuel economy by about two miles per gallon.
  2. Avoid abrupt stops and starts. The herky-jerky trips most commuters are familiar with don’t just give us headaches—they also cost us fuel. Starting from a full stop is a particularly energy-intensive activity for an engine. And the extra gas each rev up costs quickly adds up to a much bigger bill at the pump.

    So, try to make your car rides as smooth as possible. Use back roads to avoid lights and traffic jams. Keep an ample distance between you and the car in front of you to avoid unnecessary braking and accelerating.

    When approaching a red light, try to slow down gradually to avoid a full stop before speeding back up again. And when you’re at a full stop, don’t gun it after the light turns green—gradual starts can use up to 40 percent less gas than abrupt ones.
  3. Don’t overuse your air conditioner. A vehicle’s air conditioner works by compressing a cooling agent. That process requires energy. And in a car, that source of energy is the fuel in your tank.

    On a blistering summer day, of course, it’s fine to turn on the air conditioner. But once you’ve cooled down, don’t keep the inside of your car at refrigerator-low temperatures. Overusing the air conditioner can reduce a car’s fuel economy by up to two miles per gallon.

    When it’s a nice day, roll down the windows. And make a point to park in the shade.
  4. Plan your trips in advance. Taking a series of short trips instead of a single long one can put many extra miles on an engine. Plan ahead to combine errands and cut down on short trips. Pick the kids up from school, buy groceries, and drop a package off at the post office in one trip instead of three.

    And consider carpooling. When you share a ride, you aren’t just splitting gas costs—you’re also cutting down on expenses like insurance and taxes and helping the environment.
  5. Maintain your car. Too many American drivers don’t get their vehicle the regular tune-ups it requires. Properly maintaining your car can dramatically cut down on gas consumption and save you money.

For example, properly inflated tires can improve fuel efficiency by up to three percent. When tires start losing pressure, the engine has a tougher time pushing the car forward—and thus consumes more gas. The average vehicle on the road right now has its tires under-inflated by over seven percent, which can cause about a three-percent loss in fuel economy.

Removing excess weight in the cabin or trunk of the vehicle will also improve fuel efficiency. Simply removing this load can reduce fuel consumption and help to lower emissions.

Gas prices could continue to rise over the next few months. But even if they don’t, these five simple steps will help you reduce your fuel consumption—and conserve your cash.

John Felmy is the chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute.


Having a baby? Get your finances in order

—Jason Alderman

I wouldn’t trade the experience of raising my two kids for anything, but I must admit that when my wife and I started planning our family, we had no idea how expensive it would be. According to a Department of Agriculture report, a typical, middle-income family will spend over $280,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars to raise a child born in 2009 until age 18—and that doesn’t even include prenatal care or college costs.

Take it from one who knows—you’ll want to have “the money talk” well before the baby is born, and you’re bleary-eyed from lack of sleep. Here are a few budgeting tips:

  • Create a health budget. Before the baby is born, find out what benefits your insurance will cover, taking into account monthly premiums, deductibles, and copayments. For example, are prenatal exams, baby checkups, and immunizations covered? Ask what your share of delivery costs will be. If complications arise, such as needing a Caesarian delivery or premature baby incubation, costs could skyrocket.
  • Parental leave. Learn your employer’s policies, since some require up to a year’s employment before certain benefits like paid leave, short-term disability, and unpaid leave kick in. In addition, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for births or adoptions, so check with your benefits department to see if you’re eligible.
  • Know what things cost. We were amazed how many “things” our babies needed. Must-haves include a car seat (required by law), crib and bedding, stroller, diapers, baby formula, medical and grooming supplies, clothing, and home baby proofing. Add in things like a baby bathtub, baby monitor, and safety gates, and we’re talking thousands of dollars before the kid is even crawling. Practical Money Skills for Life™, a free personal financial management program run by Visa, Inc., contains a handy calculator that can help estimate baby-related expenses (www.practicalmoneyskills.com).
  • Anticipate lost wages. When budgeting for living costs, factor in lost earnings that typically occur when a parent either temporarily leaves the workplace or chooses a job more open to flex hours or part-time work. Down the road, you’ll also need to weigh the cost of child care versus returning to work.
  • Investigate tax advantages. Ask whether your employer offers health care and dependent care flexible spending accounts (FSAs). These accounts let you pay for eligible out-of-pocket medical and child care expenses on a pretax basis—that is, before federal, state, and Social Security taxes have been deducted. This lowers your taxable income, and therefore, your taxes.

You could save hundreds or thousands of dollars on expenses you’d have to pay for anyway. And remember, you’re typically allowed to change benefit coverage after having a baby, so you could probably add FSAs midyear.

Depending on your income, number of eligible dependents, and other factors, the dependent care tax credit for federal income taxes may be preferable, although Dependent Care FSAs usually provide the greater tax advantage for most people, especially at higher incomes. IRS Form 2441 at www.irs.gov can help you calculate whether the tax credit is preferable. Or ask your tax advisor which method is best for you.

Raising a family is one of life’s most rewarding experiences. Just be sure you plan carefully for the financial bumps in the road.

     

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