Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Asparagus Tips

April 18

There are lots of myths in the tips about asparagus, one of the delicious spring vegetables. Right off, although the methods of prep are somewhat daunting to the freezer-to-microwave generation, it's comparatively easy to work with and always uniquely delicious.

First off, it is nonsense that the way to determine where to cut off the stems is to take a stalk and break it -- that it will naturally find its own best breaking point. There is no mystery about where the hard part ends, and no magic to finding a certain spot. Just lay your stalks together on the cutting board and cut at the place where the white part turns green. It's usually three to four inches from the bottom. Slice it with a knife! There is no right or wrong spot. Got it?

Another myth is that the European white asparagus is more elegant and tastier than the green American counterpart. I lived in Switzerland for six years, where asparagus is celebrated, and every restaurant bears a sign in the window "Asperges" announcing the first days of spring when fresh asparagus was on the menu. The asparagus they treasure is the white kind. It is fatter, has to be cooked longer, and invariably has little taste, no matter what is done with it. I used to yearn for our crunchy green stalks.

What to do with asparagus when you've got it and sliced the ends off? Lots of answers to that one. My sister used to slice every stalk on the diagonal into about 3" chunks and sauté these in butter or olive oil until tender; then sprinkle with fresh lemon juice, salt, and parmesan cheese. My daughter roasts asparagus in a pan with a little olive oil at 400° for about 15 minutes, turning once.

What I do goes back to my old Julia Child training (which I got from lengthy hours at the tv in the early 70's). I actually peel the asparagus -- a very old-fashioned French technique that is of course unnecessary and labor intensive, but always produces a superior result, in my mind. You almost have to watch someone do this to get it, but it's not difficult. Take those stem ends, chopped off, and, with your paring knife, not your vegetable peeler, gently pull off about three inches of the outer peel all around. This is time consuming and tedious. You don't have to do it. But if you do, I promise you you'll eat every bite of every stalk.

I then drop the stalks into simmering water for about six minutes, drain in a colander, smear them with butter, sprinkle with salt, and squeeze the juice of a wedge of lemon over them. Like the Europeans, I eat asparagus by hand (and it's much easier with a crisp American stalk).

You may recognize my all-purpose green vegetable dressing from my post on spinach. I'm not one of those people who rhapsodizes about vegetables; I suspect I like vegetables less than most people do. However, with a little lemon juice, butter, and salt, I could eat almost anything.

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