Sandwiches are the workhorses of the kitchen. Hiding some fillings between two slices of bread makes a meal that's easy to pack for lunch, but it feels ho-hum.
But something happens when you skip the top slice, and you've got something a bit classier. It's a tartine, the French name for a slice of toast topped with good things. Not to be confused with bruschetta, crostini, or smørrebrød, a tartine has French flair and is capable of being a main course, as well as an appetizer.
A tartine, with all its lovely toppings on display, gives you an opportunity to compose your naturally beautiful vegetables on a "canvas" of bread. Instead of hiding, asparagus spears and juicy tomatoes are calling out to the diner. A platter of tartines adds more color and excitement to the table than a stack of sandwiches.
To make a good tartine, you need good bread. A thick slice of peasant-style bread will form a base with enough structure to carry the toppings to your mouth without bending or breaking. Look for an unsliced whole-grain bread with plenty of texture and flavor. It needs to be a player, not just a container for fillings. Then make your slices a little thicker than usual, and toast them immediately before serving.
Spring is in the air, and asparagus is on its way, which works for these Asparagus Tartines With Balsamic Drizzle. Somewhere in California, the pointed tips are poking up from the dirt, their tight buds ready for warmth and sunshine. I look at this time as a rehearsal for the local asparagus crop, which will make a brief appearance as soon as Minnesota soils have absorbed enough sunlight.
Asparagus tips are our favorite part of the plant, with their tender, delicate buds and points. The tartine is a perfect way to show them off, by briefly steaming them and placing them on display. The stems are put to good use, steamed with garlic and puréed with white beans for a creamy spread. White beans add some heft and a little protein to the tartine, and are mild enough to let the flavor of the asparagus shine through.
Once your asparagus spread and tips are arranged on the toast, tuck in the tomato pieces and sprinkle with fresh mint, and then taste springtime on toast.
Robin Asbell is a cooking instructor and author of "Big Vegan" and "Plant-Based Meats." Find her at robinasbell.com.