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Asparagus - Get Ready for It!

April 25, 2011 | Tags: Deborah Madison , Food , Vegetables | Post comment

Asparagus - Get Ready for It!

Now is when we want to say farewell to winter squash and hello to the ultimate spring vegetable—asparagus. Much asparagus comes from as far away as Peru and Chile, but this time of year it should be getting closer and closer to home.  It’s in my farmers market (at 7000 feet) now, but it’s been an unseasonably warm year. I’ve seen it in Canada as late as July. As for the New England area? I don’t know for sure, but a phone call to your closest farmers market or Edible Boston should let you know.

Not only is asparagus emblematic of spring, it is an exceptionally easy vegetable to prepare. In fact, the less you do to it, the better. And what busy person doesn’t appreciate such qualities in a vegetable?  Oh, and there’s little waste, as well.  And it has good nutritional features: few calories, not much sodium, a good source of Vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium, zinc, fiber and on and on.  And most people find it a very delicious, succulent thing to eat.

There are thin and fat asparagus stalks, which taste pretty much the same. The fat ones offer a more succulent bite and are best peeled up to within a few inches of the tip. It’s not necessary to peel the thin ones, but you’ll want to snap them off at the base where they go from hard to tender.  Practice will tell you. Asparagus with purple tips will turn green when cooked. White asparagus, which has been blanched in the field, is super-expensive and missing its chlorophyll so we won’t even deal with that here.

Always give asparagus a 5-minute soak in some cold water to loosen any sand that might be lodged in the tips. You don’t need a fancy, expensive pot to cook it  in; a skillet works fine. Fill one that’s roomy enough with water, bring it to a boil, add salt, then the asparagus spears.  Simmer until they’re tender, about 5 to 8 minutes depending on their thickness.  I always take a slice off the bottom and taste. If it’s sufficiently tender, I know the rest is, too. Alternatively, you can steam asparagus.

One little trick: Once the asparagus is done, transfer the spears to a clean towel and let them sit there for a minute or two to shed their cooking water, otherwise it will dilute the goodness of whatever you put on it —olive oil, butter, a sauce. Once it has dried for a minute or so, transfer it to a platter and finish it with a dressing of your choice.  Like what?  Well, the Salsa Verde from last week would be very good; or a lemon-shallot vinaigrette. A little butter is good, too, and you don’t need a lot since asparagus won’t absorb it.  Asian dressings are another way to go. Or a squeeze of lemon, some salt.  You can eat it hot, or cold. You can turn it into soup, put asparagus in an omelet, and you can roast it the oven and even grill it. But simply simmered, drained and dressed with olive oil or butter will be sure to please.

Do, though, keep your eye open for asparagus from the farmers market and if you find some, give it a try, at least once.  Like other vegetables only more so, the local asparagus will be even more delicious.

Asparagus is often paired with the very rich Hollandaise sauce, but there are other ways you can dress it that are more forgiving. Here are five that are very easy to make without a recipe.

1. Simmer or steam and serve with Salsa Verde or a vinaigrette

2. Serve asparagus the Italian way, with a fried egg on top, or garnish your asparagus salad with chopped hard-cooked egg. Pickled onions, finely diced, are nice on asparagus, too.

3. Serve it warm with Parmesan or other favorite hard cheese grated over the top.

4.  Cook asparagus for 2 minutes, then drain. When you’re ready, put it in a roomy baking dish and turn it in a tablespoon or so of olive oil to coat lightly. Season with salt and pepper, then roast in a hot oven or broil until the asparagus is tender. Grate a little cheese over the top and serve with a wedge of lemon, or with that salsa verde or a vinaigrette.

5. Put partially cooked asparagus coated lightly in olive oil on the grill, turning it as needed until tender and colored in places. Serve with a favorite vinegar, a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of salt and some pepper.