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Tips on Asparagus

Times Staff Writer

For a while it looked as though asparagus aficionados might not have much to celebrate this spring. Cold weather limited supplies of the vegetable and prices in early March were hovering up around $5 and $6 a pound. Fortunately, the situation turned around in mid-month and it’ll no longer take a mortgage on the house to bankroll buying enough of the sprightly spears to satiate your appetite during the all-too-short season that this vegetable is plentiful.

Having a penchant for asparagus is nothing new. Records show that early Egyptians enjoyed eating wild asparagus, and by 200 BC the Romans had written down directions for growing and drying the vegetable. Its popularity spread through Europe to England, then crossed the Atlantic with early settlers to this country. Today, California produces about 70% of the nation’s supply of fresh green asparagus.

There seem to be a lot of opinions about whether the best asparagus spears are those that are pencil-slim or the size of a fat crayon, but in truth, it boils down to personal preference. The important thing in determining quality is to look for spears that are straight, crisp and uniformly green (except for the very lowest portion) with pointed, compact tips.

Because asparagus is very perishable, it’s best enjoyed as soon as possible after purchase. If it must be refrigerated a day or two, some references suggest wrapping the lower ends in a damp paper towel. Figure about two servings per pound when estimating how much to buy.

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Whether to snap or cut off the bottom portion, and deciding if the spears should be peeled or not, is also up to the cook. However, in “Greene on Greens” (Workman Publishing: 1984) the late Bert Greene claimed, “I never slice off the bottoms because, as with cut flowers, water enters more freely if the stalk is roughly torn.”

Greene believed peeling was a necessity, except for the thinnest spears, because the tough outer flesh was hard to digest. His instructions were to peel the spears with a vegetable peeler, removing the scales and stringy skin beginning about an inch down from the tip. Greene also noted, “I never wash asparagus until after it is peeled, contrary to the advice you may have read elsewhere.”

Between the short season and the versatility of asparagus, most of us find it difficult to consume too much of this vegetable. It tastes equally good hot, at room temperature or chilled. Nutritionally, asparagus is rich in Vitamin A and has fair amounts of Vitamin B, Vitamin C and iron. And at only 35 calories per cup, cooked, even those watching their waistlines needn’t worry about overindulging.

ASPARAGUS--BASIC PREPARATION

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To Steam-Boil:

Divide spears into serving-size bunches and tie loosely with string. Stand in deep pan, add boiling water to depth of 1 inch and salt, if desired. Cover and cook over medium heat about 10 minutes, until just tender.

To Boil:

Place spears in skillet or wide-bottom pan. Add boiling water to depth of 1/2 inch and salt, if desired. Cover, bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer 3 to 5 minutes, until just tender.

To Microwave:

Place spears in shallow, flat dish with stem ends toward outside edges and tips at center. Add small amount water and cover tightly with vented plastic wrap. Microware at MEDIUM-HIGH (70% power) 13 to 16 minutes per pound, rotating dish every 5 minutes.

EXQUISITE SALAD

1 cup white and brown rice mix

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1/4 cup white wine vinegar

3/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar

1 clove garlic, minced

1 cup cilantro leaves

Salt

White pepper

2 cups shredded cooked chicken, chilled

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1/2 cup sliced green onions

1 cup diced tomato

2 cups chopped escarole

1 1/2 cups chopped cooked asparagus, chilled

1 avocado, peeled and chopped

Prepare rice according to package directions. Chill.

Place vinegar, oil, sugar, garlic and cilantro in blender container. Blend until smooth. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

Combine rice, chicken, green onions, tomato, escarole, asparagus and avocado. Toss with dressing. Serve immediately or chill to blend flavors. Makes 8 cups.

ASPARAGUS-BEEF STIR-FRY

1 cup onions, cut julienne

2 teaspoons minced garlic

Peanut oil

1 pound top sirloin, cut in thin strips

1 tablespoon minced ginger root

2 cups 1-inch diagonally cut asparagus

1 cup sliced mushrooms

1 cup pea pods

1/2 cup sweet red pepper, cut julienne

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup soy sauce

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 cup bean sprouts

Pepper

Stir-fry onions and garlic in 2 tablespoons oil in skillet or wok over high heat until onions are translucent. Remove with slotted spoon to large bowl.

Add small amount oil to pan if necessary, then beef and ginger. Stir-fry until beef is browned. Remove and add to onions and garlic.

Again add small amount oil to pan if necessary, then asparagus, mushrooms, pea pods and sweet red pepper. Stir-fry until vegetables are tender-crisp. Add to mixture in bowl.

Combine cornstarch and water. Add to pan along with soy sauce and sesame oil. Cook, stirring, until thickened. Add ingredients in bowl back to pan and toss with sauce. Heat through.

Remove pan from heat and stir in bean sprouts and season to taste with pepper. Makes 4 servings.

ASPARAGUS SPEAR APPETIZERS

1/2 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon Balsamic vinegar

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon cream-style horseradish

1/4 cup minced green onions

Salt

24 asparagus spears, cooked tender-crisp and chilled

12 thinly sliced 1 1/2-inch wide strips cooked beef

12 thinly sliced 1 1/2-inch wide strips smoked salmon

1 hard-cooked egg yolk

Combine mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, pepper, garlic, horseradish and green onions, mixing well. Season to taste with salt. Chill.

Wrap bottom 1 1/2 inches of 12 asparagus spears with beef strips. Wrap bottom 1 1/2 inches of remaining 12 asparagus spears with salmon strips.

Just before serving, sieve egg yolk over mayonnaise mixture. Serve as dip for asparagus spears. Makes 2 dozen appetizers.

HOT ASPARAGUS SOUP

3 pounds asparagus

1/2 cup butter or margarine

1 onion, chopped

6 cups chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Salt, pepper

2 tablespoons chopped parsley or watercress

Wash asparagus and snap off tough ends. Peel, if desired, and slice into 2-inch pieces.

Heat butter in large heavy saucepan. Add onion and cook until tender. Set aside asparagus tips and add remaining sliced asparagus stalks to onion mixture. Cook 1 minute.

Add broth and nutmeg. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to simmer and cook until stalks are tender, about 15 minutes.

Add asparagus tips and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Spoon out and reserve some cooked tips for garnish. Puree remaining cooked asparagus and liquid in blender 2 cups at time.

Reheat soup if necessary and serve garnished with parsley and reserved asparagus tips. Makes 8 servings.

VEAL OSCAR

4 veal cutlets, cut 1/2-inch thick

1/4 cup butter or margarine

Salt, pepper

1/3 cup white wine

1/2 pound fresh crab meat

12 asparagus spears, cooked tender-crisp

Bernaise Sauce

Saute cutlets in 2 tablespoons butter in large, heavy skillet over moderately high heat 5 to 10 minutes, turning to brown both sides. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add wine, cover, and simmer 20 minutes or until tender.

Saute crab meat in remaining 2 tablespoons butter in small skillet 3 to 4 minutes. Arrange veal cutlets on serving dishes. Place equal portions crab meat over cutlets.

Pour veal cooking liquid into crab skillet and boil rapidly until reduced to 1/4 cup. Spoon over crab meat.

Top each serving with 3 asparagus spears, drizzle with Bearnaise Sauce and serve remaining sauce on side. Makes 4 servings.

Bernaise Sauce

2 tablespoons white wine

1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar

2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon

2 teaspoons minced shallots or onion

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup butter or margarine

3 egg yolks

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

Dash white pepper

1/2 teaspoon prepared mustard

Place wine, vinegar, tarragon, shallots, pepper and sugar in small saucepan. Bring to boil. Cook rapidly over high heat until almost all liquid has evaporated.

Heat butter in another small saucepan until bubbly, but not browned. Place egg yolks, lemon juice, salt, white pepper and mustard in blender container. Process on low speed about 5 seconds.

With blender running, add butter in slow, steady stream until blender blades are covered. Then increase speed to high and slowly add remaining butter and cooked wine mixture. Makes about 1 cup.

Food Styling by Donna Deane


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