asparagus

Times Food Editor

Forget the calendar. Ignore the weather. Those tender-crisp first fresh green spears of the season say it all. Fat stalks of asparagus standing row upon row in the produce section are indisputable indications that spring is here. It's time to gorge. Indulgence is in.

The origins of this long, lean vegetable, according to the late food historian Waverley Root, are buried in obscurity. Who first discovered that asparagus was edible, and exactly when it became sought after as a menu item is unknown. That it was appreciated early on is obvious. According to Root in his definitive food encyclopedia, appropriately called "Food," the ancient Egyptians cultivated asparagus and offered it to their gods; Julius Caesar expressed a preference for it served with butter, and the Emperor Augustus, obviously a true asparagus connoisseur, was wise enough to have it served in a tender-crisp state.

Today's consumers have a marked advantage over the old-timers, however. We may have to pay a sizable amount per pound off season for this elegant spring vegetable, but at least we can savor it year-round if we're so inclined. None of this waiting until the right season these days.

It's this time of year, however, that asparagus abounds at prices that make it accessible to most. This also is the season when the arguments begin over how to cook it properly. Should a batch of asparagus stalks be tied together and placed cut-end down in a narrow, deep pan designed primarily to cook this particular vegetable? Should they be cooked lying flat in a large skillet in a half-inch or so of water? Should they be steamed? Or microwaved?

The answer is easy. Any and all of the above. And don't overlook the idea of slicing them into inch-long pieces and stir-frying or sauteing them. Cook asparagus however you please. Just don't overcook it. That is the No. 1 crime one can commit against this delightful taste of spring.

Asparagus is dreadful when cooked to a limp state. It loses its spectacular texture and shape, tends to become stringy and, worst of all, turns a horrendous grayish tone. It was never intended to become mushy. But it does need cooking to bring out the best of its flavor. The tender tips will, of course, cook much faster than the more dense stalks, which is a point in favor of cooking the spears in an upright fashion. However, when the stalks are allowed to cook just to the tender-crisp state where a fork tine will pierce them easily, there's no reason any of the other suggested cooking methods aren't suitable.

When buying asparagus, look for tightly closed tips and firm, well-greened stalks. Size selection is strictly a personal matter. Arguments have raged for years over whether the best asparagus is that which is skinny or the big, fat spears.

Once bought, if it is not to be used immediately, refrigerate the asparagus with the cut ends wrapped in paper towels. Don't wash asparagus until it's to be cooked. Then snap--don't cut--the tough ends from each stalk. Plunge the spears into water to wash them, trim the lower (and tougher) nibs from the stalks with a vegetable peeler or sharp knife and proceed with whatever recipe you have in mind.

Early in the season, asparagus deserves to be savored with little more embellishment than a bit of melted butter or lemon juice. There's plenty of time later to do dramatic things with it. Here are some suggestions for those times.

Asparagus Spoon Bread is an excellent main dish for a light meatless meal. The Egg Salad Asparagus Mold will fit in nicely at a buffet. And our Marinated Asparagus allows one to enjoy this seasonal delight the year-round.

ASPARAGUS SPOON BREAD

1 1/2 pounds asparagus

1 1/2 cups milk

1/2 cup cornmeal

2 eggs, separated

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

Cheese Sauce

Snap tough ends off asparagus stalks. Wash well. Cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths. Cook, uncovered, in boiling water to cover, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup liquid for Cheese Sauce.

In medium saucepan, gradually stir milk into cornmeal. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened to consistency of moist mashed potatoes, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

Beat egg yolks until well mixed. Add to cornmeal mixture with baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix well. Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold into cornmeal mixture.

Arrange asparagus pieces in bottom of well-greased baking dish. Pour cornmeal batter over asparagus, smoothing over asparagus and to edge of casserole. Bake at 375 degrees 45 to 50 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with Cheese Sauce. Makes 4 servings.

Cheese Sauce

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 cup milk

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup reserved asparagus liquid

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Melt butter in small saucepan. Stir in cornstarch to form smooth paste. Gradually stir in milk. Place over low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is thickened and comes to boil. Cook 3 minutes longer, continuing to stir. Add cheese, a little at a time, stirring until melted. Stir in reserved asparagus liquid, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Heat to serving temperature.

STUFFED TORTELLINI WITH ASPARAGUS

1/4 cup butter

3 cloves garlic, crushed

3 tablespoons flour

2 1/4 cups hot milk

Salt, pepper

1 tablespoon dry Sherry

2 (8-ounce) packages cheese- or mushroom-stuffed tortellini

1 pound asparagus spears

Melt butter in saucepan and saute garlic until lightly golden. Remove garlic. Stir in flour and cook over low heat 3 to 5 minutes. Return garlic to pan. Stir in hot milk. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in Sherry. Keep warm.

Cook tortellini according to package directions. Drain and keep warm. Steam or cook asparagus in boiling salted water 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and arrange on plate with tortellini. Pour garlic sauce over. (Or cut up asparagus into 1-inch pieces and mix with sauce and tortellini.) Makes 4 to 6 servings.

EGG SALAD ASPARAGUS MOLD

3 tablespoons unflavored gelatin

1 1/4 cups water

1 cup mayonnaise

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/4 cup vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

Salt, white pepper

1 1/2 dozen hard-cooked eggs, diced

2 tablespoons minced onion

1 (2-ounce) jar pimientos, chopped

1/2 cup minced celery

16 or more asparagus spears, blanched

Sprinkle gelatin over water. Let stand until softened. Heat, stirring, until dissolved. Whip in mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, sugar and season to taste with salt and white pepper. Cool until mixture begins to thicken. Mix eggs with onion, pimientos and celery. Add gelatin mixture.

Spoon 1/3 of mixture into lightly oiled 9-inch loaf pan. Chill until almost set. Arrange half of asparagus spears atop egg mixture. Spoon over another 1/3 of egg mixture. Chill until partially set.

Arrange remaining asparagus spears over egg layer. Top with remaining egg mixture. Chill until set. Turn out onto serving platter. Garnish as desired and serve. Makes about 10 servings.

EGGS BENEDICT ASPARAGUS ON CROISSANTS

12 asparagus spears

4 croissants

4 poached eggs

Hollandaise Sauce

8 slices crisp-cooked bacon

Cook asparagus in boiling salted water until tender-crisp. Drain. Split each croissant in half. Place 3 asparagus spears over each of 4 croissant halves. Top each with poached egg. Spoon over Hollandaise Sauce. Serve with 2 slices bacon each. Makes 4 servings.

Hollandaise Sauce

3 egg yolks

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Dash salt

Cayenne pepper

1/2 cup butter

Place egg yolks, lemon juice, salt and cayenne to taste in blender. Blend until smooth. Heat butter until completely melted. Turn blender on to maximum speed and pour in melted butter in thin steady stream.

MARINATED ASPARAGUS

60 asparagus spears, about

1 cup olive oil

1/2 cup vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

Salt

White pepper

4 cloves garlic

4 small hot dried chiles

2 sprigs fresh dill weed

Wash asparagus well. Cut off stem ends so stalks are 1/2 inch shorter than 1 1/2-pint jars. Tightly pack asparagus in clean jars, stem ends down.

Heat together olive oil, vinegar, sugar, water, mustard seeds and salt and white pepper to taste. Add garlic and chiles. Heat to boiling. Quickly pour into asparagus-filled jars, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Wipe rims of jars with clean, damp cloth. Attach lids. Store in refrigerator up to 1 month. For longer storage, place in canner and process in boiling water bath 20 minutes. Makes 2 (1 1/2-pint) jars.

Food styling by MINNIE BERNARDINO and DONNA DEANE / Los Angeles Times

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