Asparagus time is right around the corner

April 15, 2013

Good news for spring vegetable lovers - the lady at Lloyds Market said local asparagus will be there next week. Thanks to growers in Mexico and Peru, you can find these lovely stalks almost year-round, but nothing compares to the flavor and texture of the harvest from nearby farms.

While most will agree the quality of freshly picked produce is superior to food that travels long distances before reaching your table, asparagus provides a clear example of why that’s true. As soon as the spears are cut from the crown, they begin to lignify, or deposit fibrous cellulose compounds in their cell walls. You can readily see this if you examine a bundle of asparagus that’s been in the grocery any length of time: the cut edge of the stalks will appear whitish and woody instead of moist and green.

Understanding this process is useful when preparing asparagus. The standard technique for trimming the spears is to hold the top in one hand, the base in the other hand and bend it until it snaps. Kitchen lore says that where it breaks is just above the fibrous section, separating the tender top at the ideal location. Unfortunately, this is not always the case: you can force it to break depending upon where you hold it and how you apply pressure.

The better technique for ensuring you discard the chewy pulp and keep the delicate flesh is to select one stalk and cut it where the white base transitions to green. Look at the cross section to make sure it’s moist and tight; if you see any dry spots or open pockets, trim it a bit more. Then, line up the rest of the spears and cut them the same length, using this one as the guide.

Peeling or shaving the lower portion of the stalk is another bit of asparagus advice that may not always work. All you’re doing is removing some of the outer flesh, not any of the fibrous interior at the base. And the thickness of the stalk doesn’t necessarily indicate freshness (unless it’s spindly and pitted, a sure sign of age). The choice of thin spears or thick should be based on personal preference and how you plan to prepare them.

Slender stalks are best for dishes requiring little or no cooking, such as stir-fry or salad. Save the thicker spears for steaming or roasting, keeping in mind they don’t need much time in the heat to become mushy. If you happen to overcook asparagus, don’t serve them whole; use them chopped in quiche or pureed into soup.

In addition to its unique flavor, asparagus has been held in high regard since ancient times for its healing and cleansing properties. Loaded with antioxidants, folic acid and valuable micronutrients, asparagus was prized more than 2,500 years ago by the Greeks and Egyptians. First-century Romans froze asparagus to preserve it for future feasts, and Louis XIV cultivated asparagus in his greenhouse for a continuous supply.

Now that this storied vegetable is available locally, it’s time to add asparagus to the menu. I’ve included recipes for the steamed asparagus with lemon vinaigrette in the photo, creamy (low-fat) asparagus soup and a mushroom risotto. But, if your supply is fresh enough, you don’t need to cook it at all, just shave slivers into your favorite salad or toss the tips into an omelet. And a final bit of vegetable lore - our ancestors considered asparagus an aphrodisiac.

Steamed Asparagus

1 lb fresh asparagus
salt, to taste
1/2 C water

Trim the woody ends from the spears. Place upright in an asparagus steamer or lay flat in a skillet. Sprinkle with salt and add water. Cover and steam until tender, about 2 or 3 minutes. Drain and serve with hollandaise sauce or lemon vinaigrette.

Lemon Vinaigrette

juice of 1 lemon
1 T olive oil
1 t rice wine vinegar
1 minced shallot
1/4 t dry mustard
salt & pepper, to taste

Whisk the ingredients together until well combined. Drizzle over steamed asparagus or salad greens.

Asparagus Soup

1 T butter
1 chopped onion
2 chopped shallots
1 lb asparagus
1 1/2 C baby spinach
4 C chicken stock
1 t tarragon
1/8 t grated nutmeg
salt & pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion and shallot; cook until wilted. Trim and chop the asparagus, discarding any woody stems. Shred the spinach, discarding any stringy stems. Add both to the pan and cook briefly, stirring often. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until vegetables are mushy, about 15 minutes. Using a food processor or immersion blender, puree until smooth. Stir in tarragon and nutmeg; adjust seasonings and serve. Yield: 6 servings.

Asparagus Risotto

4 dried shitake mushrooms
2 C very hot water
2 1/2 C chicken stock
1 C Arborio rice
1/2 C dry white wine
1 1/2 C asparagus tips
3 T grated Parmesan cheese
parsley for garnish

Combine mushrooms with hot water and soak until softened, about 15 minutes. Place stock in a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer; keep warm. Remove mushrooms from water; set aside. Strain liquid and reserve 1 C. Remove and discard woody stems from mushrooms and cut tops into matchsticks. Place the rice in a heavy saucepan over low heat. While stirring constantly, add reserved mushroom water. Bring to a simmer and stir until liquid has been absorbed. Add 1 C warm stock and stir until liquid is absorbed. Add wine, chopped mushrooms and asparagus tips. Continue to add stock, 1/2 C at a time until rice is creamy and tender (total cooking time from first addition of liquid will be about 20 minutes). Stir in cheese and serve, garnished with chopped parsley. Yield: 4 servings.

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