It is said that God created asparagus because he couldn't bear to watch us stew any more winter vegetables. Stew these bright young things, and you'll end up with a side dish that tastes more like wet tissue paper. In fact, stew these tender morsels and He just might take them back.
A member of the aristocratic lily family, asparagus is native to Europe, where it still grows wild in certain fields in France. Were they not harvested, those little green buds would grow into fernlike sprays with bright-red berries.
Here in the United States, however, California is the main producer, yielding more than 50% of the 235 million pounds of asparagus grown last year. Washington and Michigan are second and third, respectively.
In this country, asparagus for the most part is grown from tissue culture, a process by which a plant is raised from a single cell. The wild asparagus adorning fancy restaurant menus is either imported from France or grew from wayward seeds that blew over the fence from cultured-asparagus territory.
White asparagus, usually found in France, is planted in trenches and covered with mulch as the shoots emerge, thus protecting them from the green-tinting sunlight.
Asparagus is so pampered it rarely shares the limelight. It is often bestowed instead with a whole course to itself. So if you're ransacking cookbooks for ideas aside from the usual hollandaise or mousseline sauce, you might try 1 pound of asparagus a la:
Maltaise--Substitute orange juice for water and lemon juice in hollandaise sauce.
Polonaise--Chop 2 hard-cooked eggs, combine with 2 tablespoons chopped parsley and sprinkle over asparagus. Melt 6 tablespoons butter and saute cup bread crumbs until browned, pour over warm asparagus.
Flemish--Mash 2 hard-cooked egg yolks and mix into 1/2 cup melted butter with 2 teaspoons lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour over warm asparagus and top with finely chopped egg whites.
Oriental--Crush together 1 clove garlic, 1 nickel-size piece of fresh ginger and dash salt. Combine with 1/2 teaspoon sugar, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil, 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, freshly ground pepper to taste and 1 tablespoon chopped green onions.
Garlic Mayonnaise With Pine Nuts--Boil 2 large unpeeled garlic cloves 10 minutes. Peel and mash. Whisk together 1 large egg yolk, 1 teaspoon mustard, teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar and pepper to taste. Heat mixture over boiling water 2 to 3 minutes or until it thickens. Add cup olive oil, drop by drop, whisking constantly, and 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar and cup olive oil in stream. Whisk in garlic and 1 to 2 tablespoons warm water to thin mayonnaise to desired consistency. Spoon mayonnaise over asparagus and sprinkle with pine nuts.
Steam, Poach or Microwave Asparagus--Position larger ends toward outside of dish, as they take slightly longer to cook. One pound peeled asparagus placed in covered dish with cup water takes 8 minutes to cook until tender.