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By Terri Hahn
Journalist 

The age of asparagus

 

It took me a long time to decide I liked asparagus.

Of course, it wasn't as common in the grocery stores when I was growing up in western Nebraska as it is now, but it did grow wild along the North Platte River. I kind of remember Mom and Dad going out to gather some, but honestly, I don't remember what Mom did with it.

Now I can't wait for asparagus season. I bought my first bunch just a couple of weeks ago. It's become a staple on my Easter dinner menu.

But how much do you know about asparagus? Check out these tips:

Choose it: Look for tight heads (if they're shedding, skip them). Check the bottom of the cut ends. If they're so dry they have holes, skip them. Avoid stalks that have ridges, a sign they're old or woody.

What's the difference between white and green asparagus? White asparagus is white because it is grown in the absence of light under mounds of soil so the spears do not have the opportunity to undergo photosynthesis.

Which size? Depends on what you're doing with it: Thin spears are great for slicing into short sections and sautéing. Fat are best for roasting, grilling and shaving into raw asparagus salad. Medium can go either way.

Store it: Wrap a wet paper towel around the bottoms and tuck into an open plastic bag with the tops sticking out. If you have the room, you can also stand the bunch up in a little water in a jar and refrigerate it. Keep it up to a week.

Snap or peel? If you hold a stalk between your two hands and gently bend it, it will snap off right where the bottom of the stalk gets too tough. If you can't bear to lose that much, cut off the bottom 2 inches, then use a vegetable peeler to shave off the tough skin for several inches up the stalk. (Snapping is faster, though.)

To get the most from it, here are some tricks from food writers Susan Selasky and Kathleen Purvis:

Treat it simply. Doing so honors its flavor. Also, cook it just until it's al dente (still a bit firm to the bite) or crisp-tender. When you cook, even if removed from the heat source, it will continue to cook. And so, a little underdone is OK.

A popular way to cook asparagus is on the grill. It's easy and cooks quickly. While your steak is resting, put on the asparagus.

While you can just toss the asparagus on the grill (thicker spears are best), the cast of "The Kitchen" on the Food Network, offered this tip to prevent it from falling through the grates: Place a baking cooling rack on the grates and then place the asparagus on the rack. It's an extra step, but it works.

To grill asparagus, rinse and pat dry. Place asparagus spears on a sided sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil and a generous sprinkling of kosher salt and, if desired, freshly ground black pepper. Give the sheet pan a shake to coat all the spears as evenly as possible with the oil and salt.

Grill over direct heat, about 5 to 6 minutes depending on the thickness of the spears or until they are just crisp-tender. Don't overcook them. The spears should have a slight crunch when you bite into them. To serve: Drizzle with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, favorite vinaigrette or balsamic glaze.

Roast it: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Follow instructions for preparing to grill asparagus using the olive oil, salt and pepper. Place in a 400-degree oven and roast about 5-8 minutes depending on the size.

Stovetop: Trim the bottoms of the spears. Place 1 to 2 tablespoons butter in a cast-iron skillet and heat until foaming. Lay the asparagus stalks in the skillet and roll around to coat with the butter. Cover and cook over medium heat about 3 minutes. Uncover and turn the stalks. Cook with the lid off 4 to 5 minutes longer, until tender but still bright green. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve hot.

Microwave: Food Network chef Alton Brown came up with this method. Trim off the ends. Pour 1/4 cup water into a plate, then place a two-sheet length of paper towels on it to soak up the water.

Place all the asparagus on the towel in a single layer and sprinkle with salt. Roll up. Microwave for 3 to 4 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears. Use tongs to unroll the paper towels.

Shave it: Using a vegetable peeler, shave raw asparagus lengthwise into long strips. Toss with any cooked long-strand hot pasta along with a light drizzling of olive oil, a sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper. Don't be shy - you can add a good amount of the shaved asparagus to the pasta.

Slice it: Thinly slice raw asparagus spears on the diagonal and toss them in your favorite mixed greens salads, pasta or potato salads.

For a tender, fresh take on asparagus, you also can blanch it in a pot of well-salted boiling water. The trick is to not overcook it; 45 seconds for slender stalks is plenty of time. Blanched asparagus will keep in the refrigerator and can be used to top salads, as snacks, or be added at the last second to a sauté.

The best news is that you can eat asparagus with abandon! A full cup of fresh asparagus has fewer than 30 calories, yet still gives you 3 grams each of protein and fiber. Plus, it's a good source of vitamins C and A, as well as iron (a plus for non-meat-eaters).

Here are several ideas for asparagus from recipe developer Alison Ladman:

Soup: Cut 1 bunch of asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces. Steam until just tender and still bright green. Reserve 1/2 cup of pieces, then blend the remaining asparagus with 1 cup warmed half-and-half and 1 cup warmed low-sodium chicken broth or stock. Season with salt and pepper and a pinch of cayenne. Spoon into bowls and top with the reserved pieces of asparagus and a sprinkle of crumbled feta cheese.

Bruschetta: Thinly slice a bunch of asparagus diagonally. Combine with 1 cup chopped roasted red peppers, 1 cup diced fresh mozzarella cheese, 1/4 cup torn basil leaves, 1 minced clove garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoon red wine vinegar and 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard. Season with salt and black pepper. Serve over slices of rustic bread.

Pizza: Arrange thin asparagus spears over a prepared pizza crust. Top with slices of brie and pieces of torn prosciutto. Bake at 400 degrees F until the crust is golden and the cheese is melted, about 10 minutes. Drizzle with balsamic glaze.

Glazed: In a skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Add a bunch of asparagus and 2 tablespoons maple syrup. Cook until the asparagus is tender and the sauce is slightly reduced. Season with salt and pepper, then stir in the zest of 1/2 lemon.

*****

This brown butter asparagus is deceptively simple. It pairs nutty browned butter with toasted pecans, which add a perfect richness and texture to the asparagus. A final small trick - using soy sauce instead of salt gives the dish a savory, umami flavor, which is a lovely companion to the earthy veggie.

Brown Butter Asparagus with Pecans

Start to finish: 15 minutes

1-1/2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and cleaned

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons pecans, chopped

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Chopped fresh parsley, to garnish

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the asparagus and blanche for 45 seconds (add 30 seconds if stalks are particularly thick). Using tongs, remove the asparagus and allow to drain dry on paper towels. Arrange the asparagus on a serving platter.

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, melt the butter and cook until the bubbles subside and brown bits start to form, about 2 minutes. Add the pecans and stir so that nothing burns. Once the pecans are fragrant and the butter is toasty brown, stir in the soy sauce and lemon juice, then remove from the heat. Pour the pecan butter sauce over the asparagus, sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 80 calories; 50 calories from fat (63 percent of total calories); 5 g fat (2.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 5 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 3 g protein; 50 mg sodium.

Recipe from: Melissa d'Arabian, vis the Associated Press

Asparagus with Dijon Mustard Sauce and Hard-Cooked Egg

3 eggs

About 1 pound thick asparagus, bottoms trimmed or snapped off

1/2 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Pinch of salt and a few grinds of freshly ground black pepper

Place the eggs in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil. Cover, remove from heat and let stand 16 minutes. Remove eggs to a bowl of ice water or rinse to cool. Peel and roughly chop.

Cook asparagus however you like: Grilled, microwaved, roasted or in a skillet.

Mix mayonnaise, mustard, water and vinegar in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Arrange asparagus on a platter. Spoon the sauce over them and top with chopped egg.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe from: Kathleen Purvis

When the asparagus shows up, the sugar snap peas usually aren't far behind. If you don't have sugar snaps, use frozen peas, rinsed to thaw, and skip cooking them.

Shaved Asparagus and Sugar Snap Pea Salad

About 1 cup sugar snap peas, stems pulled off

4 or 5 thick asparagus spears

1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, minced

2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan

Salt and pepper

Bring a small pan of water to boil and add a good pinch of salt. Cut the sugar snap peas in half diagonally, then throw them, peas, pods and all, into the water. Cook 3 minutes, drain and rinse under cold water. Drain well.

Place in a serving bowl. Use a sharp vegetable peeler to shave the asparagus down the length of the stalks, sort of like shaving the end of a pencil, shaving the whole thing up to the tip and letting the strips and the tips fall into the bowl with the peas.

In a small bowl, combine the mint and lemon or lime juice. Whisk in the olive oil, then stir in the Parmesan. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour over the asparagus and peas and toss.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe from: Kathleen Purvis

It's often said that less is more, and fresh asparagus proves the point.

Roasted Asparagus with Parmesan

1-1/2 pounds of white and green asparagus

1 tablespoon olive oil

Coarse salt and ground pepper, to taste

1/4 cup of Parmesan-Romano cheese

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Prepare asparagus by trimming tough stalks and removing ends.

On a rimmed baking sheet, toss asparagus with olive oil; season with coarse salt and ground pepper.

Spread in an even layer. Sprinkle with cheese.

Roast until asparagus is tender and cheese is melted, 10 to 15 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe from: http://www.marthastewart.com

Sesame Asparagus

1 pound of asparagus (white or green)

1 (4-ounce) jar of sliced mushrooms, drained

2 tablespoons of butter

1 teaspoon of lemon juice

1 teaspoon of sesame seeds, toasted

Prepare asparagus (snap for green, peel for white) then cook in a small amount of boiling salted water in a covered pan until crisp-tender. Time depends on your preference and the thickness of the stalks. Drain well.

Transfer to a microwave safe oblong dish and add mushrooms, butter and lemon juice. Heat through in the microwave. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

Makes 6 servings.

Recipe adapted from: "Better Homes and Gardens All-Time Favorite Vegetable Recipes" by Doris Eby (Meredith Corporation; 1977)

A nice hollandaise is a classic accoutrement to asparagus. Because of the color contrast, serve it with green asparagus. Remember not to overcook the hollandaise; you'll know it's done when it is thick enough to coat a metal spoon.

Hollandaise Sauce

2 egg yolks

1/4 cup butter, melted

1/4 cup boiling water

1-1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon of salt

Dash of cayenne pepper

In top of a double boiler, beat egg yolks with a wire whisk until smooth.

Gradually add the butter, a little at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition.

Gradually add water, again beating thoroughly with the wire whisk. Place top of double boiler over simmering water in base. (Water should not touch the top pan.) Cook over simmering water, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens. Do not overcook as sauce will curdle.

Gradually beat in lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Spoon over cooked asparagus.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Recipe adapted from: McCall's Cooking School, McCall's Publishing Co.

Terri Hahn of Osceola has worked in food media for more than 30 years and has won numerous state and national awards for her writing. Email her at [email protected]

 

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