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2014 Asparagus Festival, Stockton CA

stages of growth of an asparagus plant

stages of growth of an asparagus plant

Asparagus is 93% water. That’s what Stockton, CA felt like on the first Friday of the 2014 Asparagus Festival, as it rained enough to shut down the first of a three-day foodie event. Thankfully the rain stopped long enough on Saturday for droves of people to come out and celebrate asparagus together under an overcast sky. Most of the droves drove and the numerous parking lots within blocks were filled quickly, but at least street parking in Stockton isn’t metered on the weekends.

We attended last year and sampled every bite (and sip) of asparagus. Of course this year we wanted to enjoy some more, but to avoid redundancy we also wanted to try other creative cooking. If only there was time to do it all in just one visit!

The festival takes up a large area, so there is plenty to experience while shuffling from food stand to food stand. While we walked around, we listened to Berlin as they played on one of several entertainment stages billed to host a variety of bands and singers. There were also chef demonstrations, shopping vendors, children’s activities, a farmers market, eating competitions, dog agility competitions, a hole-in-one golf competition, paddleboats for rent, and a sea lion exhibit.

Food, beverages, and alcoholic drinks are generally purchased with tickets, which are found in the white tents that are conveniently marked on the map in the free brochure – make sure to pick one up when you enter. The cost is $1 per ticket and most items were three to six tickets, but lots of food vendors were accepting cash, as well. We did not have any alcoholic drinks, but we know from trying them last year that they are good. These folks were happy to let us snap a shot of their yummy asparagus margaritas.

Asparagus Alley is the legendary collection of gigantic tents where groups of volunteers produce an asparagus spread en masse. Last year we tried the asparagus beef burritos, asparagus steak hoagies, and asparagus pasta, but the most popular item that people flock to is the deep fried asparagus. The batter itself was light and crunchy, sprinkled with a good amount of sharp Parmesan cheese. The asparagus itself was cooked perfectly – not mushy, and not stringy. It was hot and fresh, too, so the crew of volunteers was really working well together this year.

ice cream!!

ice cream!!

Did you think we wouldn’t have another round of asparagus ice cream? Truly it is tasty. Tasty enough that we each got our own instead of just “sampling.” The asparagus flavor is light over a rich and creamy vanilla base; anyone saying they didn’t like it was in denial and couldn’t get over the fact that there was asparagus in the ice cream. Little chunks are visible but it does little if nothing to the texture, so this is a delicious dessert despite a doubtful disposition.

We’ve met Castro’s BBQ Shack and Filipino Food before at last year’s Gilroy Garlic Festival, and we appreciated that they embraced the theme of that festival. They did the same here, with asparagus lumpia added to their menu for the weekend. While we waited for our order, we were gifted a sample of their famous traditional lumpia with a spicy, tangy dipping sauce. We noticed the traditional lumpia was more popular than the asparagus lumpia, but that’s not to say that the asparagus lumpia wasn’t selling fast.

asparagus lumpia

asparagus lumpia

No offense to the volunteers making the deep fried asparagus over at the Alley because it was great, but Castro’s asparagus lumpia had them beat. A delicately thin and crispy wrapper was fried just right so there was little excess oil, and there was zero difficulty in biting through the fresh asparagus. Of the three dips for choosing we went with the ranch; maintaining a balance of herbs and tanginess, it was a good choice to highlight the celebrated vegetable.

deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich

deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich

We admit, we walked by many food stands because they either 1) didn’t provide something new and/or different, or 2) we had tried them before and they had nothing new and/or different to offer. But of all the festival, the one non-asparagus item that made us melt was Castro’s deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If we had to sum it up on one word, it would be “ohmmfggd.” Pretty sure we actually said that as we chewed the first bite. It was similar to a Monte Cristo sandwich in terms of texture and presentation. The creamy and savory peanut butter mellowed the bright sweetness of the strawberry jelly, and together they oozed between slices of standard white bread. Despite being deep fried, since you’d think that the bread would soak up excessive oil, it was not greasy. In fact, all we needed to wipe our fingers when done was the wax paper on which it was served.

Barring event-cancelling weather, we encourage you to attend the Asparagus Festival at least once in your life, although it’s likely something you’ll want to return to. This was its 29th year, so it is reliably a festival that can be made a tradition for families to enjoy through generations. All those in your company will have a good time, whether or not they like asparagus.

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Pan-Fried Halibut with Dill Cream Sauce and Asparagus

Our orzo recipe could almost be a passable dinner by itself, but if you need protein at each meal, then this light fish is a great choice to pair with the orzo.  It doesn’t require a lot of attention to make it, so invite the kids to treat the parents for dinner one night by whipping this up for the family.

Makes 2

1/2 of a bunch of large asparagus

3/4 lb. halibut filet

1/2 cup of heavy whipping cream

1 tbs. of freshly chopped dill

1 tbs. of olive oil

The juice of 1 lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

shock the spears

shock the spears

Steam the asparagus until the spears are al dente.  Once removed from heat, add ice to keep the asparagus from continuing to cook itself.

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If the filet is large, cut it in half.  In a large saute pan over medium-medium-high heat (like NNW is right between north and northwest), add the olive oil and butter.  Bring the pan to full heat before adding the fish.

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Add the fish pieces one at a time, with about 15-20 seconds in between so as not to shock the pan.  Fry on each side for 4-5 minutes.  At the same time, in a small saute pan over medium-low heat, combine the cream, dill, lemon juice, and optional salt and pepper.  Cook until reduced and thickened to achieve nappe.

pan-fried halibut with dill cream sauce and asparagus

pan-fried halibut with dill cream sauce and asparagus

Optional: toss the asparagus spears in melted butter before serving.

Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto, Berkeley CA

Spenger’s is a landmark of Berkeley with a history spanning over a century, famous the world over for its seafood.  Zach ate here often growing up, and not much has changed in nearly thirty years of his experiences.  Some restaurants simply know how to please their customers and keep them coming back for generations with tried and true practices.  In terms of service and attention, this restaurant shines like the Sather Tower campanile at night.

One of the favorite starters here is the spinach, crab, and Parmesan dip.  It was extremely rich, creamy, and thick with a cheesy top that was nicely browned.  There was an abundance of spinach and artichoke heart morsels to balance the shredded crab meat.  The bread wedges were like a buttery flat bread, with a crispy exterior and fluffy center.  It looked like a lot of bread at first for the amount of dip, but to savor the starter, just a little on each wedge went a long way.

salmon and mushroom sauté

salmon and mushroom sauté

August found it very challenging to make up her mind among three different entrees, their descriptions all sounded so good.  She went with the salmon and mushroom sauté and was very happy with her selection.  The shallot sherry cream was delicate and worked well to marry the salmon, mushrooms, and asparagus.  Hunks of moist salmon were plentiful and substantial, not to be broken by the tender asparagus spear bits.  The mushrooms brought an autumnal earthiness, and the rice helped to add another texture and sop up all the juicy remains.

captain's platter

captain’s platter

Zach’s entree, the Captain’s Platter, had a selection of Spenger’s best seafood, fried.  Oysters, fish filets, and “shrimp scatter” (a handful of bay shrimp) were turned into crisp, succulent morsels and nibbles.  The shrimp were mildly sweet, and the crunchy panko breading did wonders for the oysters to offset their soft creamy insides.  The flaky fish was perfect for dipping into sauces, including ketchup, tartar, and cocktail.  Sweet, tangy, and creamy cole slaw with fresh vegetables provided a refreshing break between bites of fried goodness.

chocolate bag

chocolate bag

Chef Dan came out to meet us and present this masterful creation.  Decadently rich dark chocolate was melted, painted, and cooled to make a “bag” into which sweet cream chantilly was loaded.  On top of the chantilly and garnished all over were bright strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries, some of them resting in stripes and swirls of chocolate sauce and strawberry syrup.  Two waffle cone “chips” perched in the “bag,” but this was as far from snack food as we could get!  To satisfy the post-dinner sweet tooth with something not too heavy, this refreshing dish does the trick.

Our server Emily was patient and professional with our every request.  We hope that patrons sitting in other sections received service as good as ours.  In reality, we’re fairly certain they did – what else could bring people back for 123 years?  Food can be replicated, but experience never.