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The Art of Asparagus

asparagus_11The arrival of local asparagus signals spring -like the smell of moist earth on a warm March day, or the tips of daffodils breaking through dirt. In these days of the global market, now we don’t have to wait for Spring. Of course, asparagus is better in season, but it is available in the grocery almost year-round, although sometimes the price reflects the distance of springtime.

Historically, asparagus has been a highly valued vegetable. If you’ve ever tried to grow asparagus in your garden, you may know why – it takes years for the plants to produce! It’s fascinating to grow – the spears emerge from the ground very quickly with no leaves or adornments. Asparagus should be held in high regard for its nutritional benefits more than any other reason: each spear has only about four calories, contains a large amount of antioxidants, and is an excellent source of folic acid.

There is some controversy about choosing and preparing asparagus: thick versus thin stalks, white versus green, snapping versus cutting the ends. Younger asparagus plants produce thicker stalks than older plants. When peeled and prepared, some people find the thicker stems to be more tender and more flavorful. On the other hand, thin stalks are impossible to peel – and as a result, save a step in preparation! In the farmer’s market or grocery, it’s usually one or the other that’s available– and so at any given time, the choice has already been made. Buy whatever is available, providing that it’s fresh: inspect each bunch and look for tightly closed tips and firm stalks. Purchase about a third of a pound per person. After buying the asparagus, make sure it stays moist by wrapping it in a damp paper towel and storing in a plastic bag, or stand the spears in a container in an inch of water. Use the asparagus within four days for best results.
For thinner asparagus, trim about an inch or two from the bottom ends a few minutes before cooking. Thicker stalks and a fancier meal require peeling – take a regular potato peeler, and starting about a third of the way down from the tip, begin peeling the stalk. After the stalk has been peeled, bend the bottom and the asparagus will naturally snap at the point where the stalk becomes tender.
Traditionally, asparagus has been prepared blanched or steamed in the quickest way possible. (Romans used the term “quicker than you can cook asparagus” as we use the term ASAP.) Blanch the prepared stalks in boiling salted water for four to seven minutes – just until a knife can pierce the lower end of the stalk. For immediate service, blot dry and serve, or if you’ll use it cold, or reheat later, plunge it into ice water to arrest the cooking process, then drain. Recently, more and more chefs have been preparing asparagus on the grill or roasted at high heat. These preparations are easy and bring out a whole different characteristic, so are definitely worth a try at home. Leftover asparagus can play a starring role in omelets, quiche or frittata, so go ahead and cook the whole bunch!
Part of the lure of asparagus is its decadent partners – rich hollandaise, morel mushrooms, truffles, salmon and prosciutto. Even simply prepared with lemon, butter and a good sprinkle of salt and pepper, asparagus is a treat any day. Pair with other spring vegetables like sugar snaps, English peas and leeks. Here’s a few recipes for you to try! Happy springtime!
Asparagus Risotto
(serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a side)
1 lb asparagus
4-6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 T olive oil
2 T butter plus 1 T butter
½ cup onion, diced
1 ½ cups Arborio rice
½ cup white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
½ c grated parmesan
Trim and peel asparagus. Reserve tips. Cut stalks into ½ inch pieces and divide in half. Bring the stock to a boil. Blanch ½ of the pieces in the stock for 4 minutes, then remove with a strainer. Puree cooked stalks in a food processor with ¼ cup of the stock, and set aside. Keep stock at a simmer.
In a large saucepan, heat 2 T butter and oil. Sauté the onion for 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat with the oil. Cook until the rice turns whiter and gets glossy, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and stir. When wine has evaporated, add about a cup of the stock and stir, continuing to add stock and stir and cook until it is absorbed.
After cooking about 15 minutes, add the uncooked asparagus. Continue cooking and adding liquid until the rice is al dente. Remove from the heat and add the asparagus puree, 1 T butter and the cheese. Garnish with reserved asparagus tips. Serve immediately.
Asparagus and Gruyere Puffs (makes about 30)
Based on a classic choux dough, these cheesy puffs are great hors d’oeuvres. They can be baked, frozen and gently reheated.
¾ c water
5 T butter, in pieces
½ t salt
¾ c flour
3 large eggs
½ pound fresh asparagus, ends removed, cut into small pieces and blanched briefly
1 cup grated gruyere
½ cup grated parmesan reggiano
Preparation for this recipe is important. Make sure you have all the ingredients assembled and prepped before starting. Butter two sheet pans and preheat the oven to 425.
Bring the water, butter and salt to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan. When the butter has completely melted, remove the pan from the heat and add the flour. It will be a little lumpy at first, but whisk it until smooth. Return to medium heat, and continue stirring until it forms a ball, and a film forms on the bottom and sides of the pan. Turn into a large bowl and stir for a minute to cool it off.
Whisk in one egg at a time (I use a small handheld mixer). When all three eggs have been added, the dough should be smooth and glossy. Add the asparagus and cheeses. Spoon rounded tablespoonfuls of the dough onto the cookie sheets. Bake for 15-20 minutes until browned and doubled in size. Using a small paring knife, cut a small hole in each puff, and return to the oven (turned off) for three minutes.
Serve with cocktails.
Asparagus and Proscuitto Grilled Cheese Sandwiches (makes 4)
48 spears of asparagus
8 slices of artisanal bread
½ pound prosciutto di Parma, thinly sliced
½ pound Grayson, Fontina or Tallegio cheese, sliced
Olive oil
Trim and steam the asparagus about three minutes until just cooked.
Layer four slices of bread with prosciutto, asparagus spears and cheese. Cover with remaining bread, and brush the outsides with olive oil.
Grill in a skillet or on a panini press until the cheese is melted. Slice in half and serve.

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