Asparagus + Morels, Oh My!

Every spring, the Garden State reaps a bounty of these two healthful harvests. Here are some creative ways to enjoy the height of season.
by Pat Tanner
I cannot recall a year when I have so looked forward to the coming of spring. As soon as it arrives, I indulge in two of its most delicious antioxidant-rich gems: asparagus and morels. Our state is renowned for its asparagus, owing to the sandy soil in the south. Although we rank fourth in national production with about 1,000 acres planted, Rutgers University is a leader in asparagus breeding. Cultivars developed there — Jersey Giant, Jersey Knight, and Jersey Supreme — are the most widely used cultivars by the big three asparagus-growing states (California, Michigan, and Washington).

Home gardeners know that in the Garden State a bed of asparagus will produce beautiful crops for 15 years or more, and that the asparagus season runs from May to late June. It is smack in the middle of that stretch that the tiny town of Greenwich in Cumberland County holds its annual egg and asparagus breakfast. That combination of foods is a South Jersey tradition, dating back to the days when the production of both was a big industry there. Greenwich is a beautifully preserved Colonial town on the Cohansey River that mounted its own tea burning leading up to the Revolution. The town’s fire department, on Ye Greate Street, customarily holds its all-you-can-eat breakfast on the Sunday after Mother’s Day (May 16). The event has drawn diners from as far away as Ohio.

The morel is my favorite mushroom. I savor its distinctive nutty, woodsy flavor and earthy aroma. Until I went on a foray with members of the New Jersey Mycological Association a few years ago, I was unaware that Morella esculenta actually grows here. That day, deep in the woods at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, my total haul was exactly one mushroom — and even for that I needed the trained eye of an expert mushroom hunter. Morels usually grow each year in exactly the same place, and around the same trees, and foragers are known to keep their best locations secret. These rare treasures have been famously resistant to cultivation, which accounts for the astronomical prices fresh ones command, especially in years when conditions do not favor their growth. Happily, morels are extremely lightweight, so a few ounces go a long way. And dried morels, while not inexpensive, make a suitable substitute.

Exactly when fresh morels pop up each year is completely dependent on the weather: Soil temperature must rise to about 50 degrees. Around these parts, this usually happens in early May, but a good indication is when the lilacs bloom. Foraging for wild mushrooms — especially for morels, which have deadly look-alikes — is a pursuit that should be undertaken only in the company of an expert. The public is welcome to join the Mycological Association’s foray. (For information on this year’s hunt, visit njmyco.org.)

Asparagus Tip

”A recent study found an inverse association between prostate cancer and the intake of legumes and certain categories of vegetables, like asparagus, among Caucasian, African-American, and Asian men,“ says Kathleen T. Morgan, chair of the Family and Community Health Sciences Department at Rutgers University.” The results suggest that a diet with higher intakes of these foods may lower the risk of prostate cancer in these populations.“

Pat Tanner is a founding member of the Central New Jersey chapter of Slow Food.

Healthier Fast Food

By Shari Bilt Boockvar, RD
Even the most health-conscious of us sometimes need to cut corners with fast meals. The New Jersey State Legislature made it easier to eat well on the go in January with the passage of a law mandating that chain restaurants with more than 20 locations nationwide post the caloric content of menu items — including alcoholic beverages. Concerned that the corporations might fudge numbers? The law also requires that a registered dietitian review postings for accuracy.

Companies have one year to comply. Until then, there are other health-conscious ways to navigate the fast-food jungle. The following is a guide to some menu options and ordering strategies for popular convenience restaurants. Have other ideas? E-mail us your favorite healthier fast-food joint or menu item: web@newjerseylife.com.

Panera Bread Order a half-sandwich portion of Smoked Turkey Breast on country loaf or Mediterranean Veggie on tomato basil bread. If you want soup, select a low-fat version such as chicken noodle, vegetarian black bean, or garden vegetable with pesto. The smartest salad choices are the Classic Café or a half-portion of the BBQ Chopped Chicken, Fuji Apple Chicken, or Grilled Chicken Caesar. Visit paneranutrition.com for nutrition information.

Dunkin’ Donuts
If you are craving something sweet, coffee with milk and Splenda along with a plain-cake Munchkin can serve as an on-the-run snack. A Munchkin is about 50 calories and has 3 grams of fat. Choose the egg-white flatbread sandwiches for a quick breakfast or lunch; these average 280 to 290 calories and have 6 to 9 grams of fat each.

Baja Fresh
Order the Charbroiled Chicken or Charbroiled Shrimp Ensalada for a healthier alternative, or make a meal of the chicken tortilla soup. Always ask for cheeses, tortilla strips, sour cream, and dressings on the side so you can monitor how much to use on your meals.
Chinese Restaurants Order steamed chicken, shrimp, or tofu with sauce on the side. Then use the “fork method”: Dip the tines of your fork in the sauce and then spear your food and eat. Get hot and sour soup (approximately 100 calories and 4 grams of fat per serving) and pour one-fourth to one-half cup on top of your steamed dish. You will enjoy the same sauce-like flavor and texture without the extra oil and sugar.
Shari Bilt Boockvar, a registered dietitian, is founder of Nutrifacts Inc. in Livingston.

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