Asparagus Bears the Fresh Flavor of Spring : Legumes: Versatile vegetable remains in season till summer and supplies are good.

When we think of seasonal spring vegetables several come to mind--peas, fava beans, artichokes, the first tender salad greens, emerging shoots of herbs, and green garlic, the bulbs not yet formed.

But the vegetable I most associate with spring is asparagus. We use garlic at all times of year, frozen peas taste fine, herbs don't really come on strong until summer, artichokes are more or less available year-round and fava beans are a bit esoteric as vegetables go.

Asparagus, though, covers the full extent of the spring season. The precise month it emerges in our region of the country may vary from the end of winter to the beginning of summer, but both ends of the market season are usually extended with imports, giving us a generous supply that begins in February and continues through June.

Asparagus is the first green vegetable to appear that gives relief from winter produce, and its fresh green taste is really welcome. This is the time of year I like to eat it very simply, blanched and served with sweet butter and maybe a squeeze of lemon juice, so that its own singular taste can be enjoyed without interference from other strong flavors.

As the season moves on and the price of asparagus begins to drop, I begin to feel easier about exploring its other possibilities. Asparagus lends itself to all types of cooking. Though excellent blanched, it can be baked, served cold as a salad, stewed with other vegetables to make a soup or ragout, grilled over coals, cooked in risotto, baked in a tart or folded into an omelet.

It is a very versatile vegetable that adapts comfortably to the different flavors of herbs and oils, such as olive, peanut, sesame and walnut oils. All are good with asparagus and each one makes a very different tasting kind of dish.

Quite a lot has been made about the proper way to cook asparagus; there are special pans designed that allow the tougher stem ends to be submerged in the boiling water while the tender tips are merely steamed.

I've always found that asparagus cooks quite well in either a large kettle or a skillet of boiling water, and I don't worry about the tough ends. I do what I can beforehand--breaking off the fibrous ends and peeling the thicker stalks.

In a restaurant situation, I find it useful to tie individual servings into bundles and blanch them. When they are done, I snip the string, leaving the asparagus lined up with the tips pointing in the same direction. At home, I don't bother with the string. I think the asparagus cooks better when loose, and the time it takes to arrange it allows it to cool to a better temperature for eating.

Blanched asparagus can either be dressed while warm and served with a covering of thin shavings of Parmesan cheese or cooked beforehand and later broiled with butter and cheese. The heat of the asparagus will soften the cheese and bring out its wonderful flavor.

ASPARAGUS WITH BROWN BUTTER AND PARMESAN CHEESE

2 pounds thick or thin asparagus

4 to 5 tablespoons butter

Boiling salted water

Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano, thinly shaved

Freshly ground pepper

Snap off tough ends of asparagus and trim stalks neatly. Peel stalks, if thick.

Melt butter in small pan or skillet over low heat. Cook until it begins to color and take on nutty aroma. Skim off foam and discard.

Add asparagus to several quarts boiling salted water. Cook until bright green, tender but still firm, about 3 minutes for thin asparagus and about 5 minutes for thick. Remove asparagus from water and drain quickly on clean towel.

Arrange on platter. Drizzle melted butter over top and scatter with shavings of Parmesan cheese. Dust lightly with pepper and serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: If preparing ahead of time, either keep asparagus slightly underdone or rinse under cold water to stop cooking. When ready to eat, drizzle butter and shaved cheese over top. Place dish few inches under broiler and heat until cheese is melted and lightly colored and asparagus is warm. Sprinkle lightly with pepper and serve.

It may seem unusual to grill asparagus, but it's very good this way. If possible, use thick asparagus. The stalks need to cook very slowly over a medium-low charcoal fire in order to be thoroughly cooked. The sauce of hard-cooked eggs mixed with olive oil, vinegar, shallots and capers has a rich velvety texture but isn't as rich as mayonnaise. This is a delicious dish that would make a special first course for an outdoor spring meal.

GRILLED ASPARAGUS WITH EGG AND CAPER SAUCE

2 pounds thick asparagus

Boiling salted water

Light olive oil

Salt

Few handfuls red mustard leaves, optional

Sauce

Break off tough ends of asparagus and trim ends even with knife. Parboil in boiling salted water about 1 minute. Rinse to stop cooking and drain. Brush stalks lightly with olive oil. Season to taste with salt.

Grill over slow fire, turning asparagus to cook evenly on all sides. (To test for doneness, pierce stalks with sharp point of knife--they should be firm but knife should penetrate easily.)

Arrange grilled asparagus on platter or individual plates lined with red mustard leaves. Ladle Sauce over all and serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Sauce

2 hard-cooked eggs

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 to 3 tablespoons tarragon or Champagne vinegar

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed

1 large shallot, finely diced

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Finely chopped chervil or parsley

Separate egg whites from yolks and chop finely. Combine eggs, oil, vinegar, capers and shallot in bowl. Season to taste with salt, pepper and chervil. Toss gently. Yolks and oil will gradually emulsify to give sauce body.

Pink-colored onions and fine slivers of orange peel in the green sauce look and taste like spring. Since the pickled onions take only a minute or two to prepare, start with them if you haven't any on hand. They will have colored by the time you're ready for them.

This salad also makes a beautiful opening to a meal, or combined with some dressed greens and perhaps some hard-cooked eggs it might be offered as a meal in itself. The sauce can be made ahead of time, the orange juice and vinegar added at the very end so that the greens remain bright and snappy. This sauce is also good over grilled asparagus.

ASPARAGUS SALAD WITH GREEN SAUCE AND PICKLED ONIONS

2 pounds thick or thin asparagus

Salt

Green Sauce

Reserved orange slivers from Green Sauce

Pickled Red Onion Rings

Chive blossoms, optional

Trim asparagus by snapping off tough ends. If asparagus is thick, peel stalks. Bring several quarts water to boil, add salt to taste and asparagus and cook until bright green, tender, but still little firm, about 3 minutes for thin asparagus or 5 minutes for thick. Rinse asparagus briefly in cool water, then place stalks on towel to drain.

Arrange asparagus on platter or individual serving plates. Ladle Green Sauce over and garnish with reserved slivers of orange zest and Pickled Red Onion Rings. Scatter few chive blossoms over all. Makes 4 first-course, 2 or 3 main-course servings.

Variation: Make salad with scented sesame or peanut oil, or with mixture of walnut and olive oils. These flavors all go well with asparagus and harmonize with orange.

Green Sauce

1 orange

1/4 cup chopped parsley, chervil or cilantro

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed

Several tablespoons drained and finely diced Pickled Red Onion Rings

4 to 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon mustard

1 tablespoon fresh orange juice

White wine or champagne vinegar

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Peel off zest from orange into long wide band. Cut into fine slivers and blanch 10 seconds. Reserve half for asparagus garnish. Place remaining half orange slivers in bowl and combine with parsley, capers and Pickled Red Onion Rings. Stir in oil, mustard, orange juice and vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

These pretty pink onions enliven salads of all kinds, sandwiches, cold pasta, rice dishes and eggs. They're also great served alongside whatever else is on the table. They'll keep well, refrigerated, a week or longer.

Pickled Red Onion Rings

1 pound red onions

About 1 quart boiling water

1 cup white wine vinegar

1 cup cold water

1 tablespoon sugar

Salt

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon mixed peppercorns, slightly crushed

Few fresh marjoram or thyme sprigs, crushed, or few dashes dried

Slice red onions into thin rounds. Separate into rings and place in colander. Pour boiling water over. Drain and place in bowl. Add wine vinegar, cold water, sugar, salt, bay leaves, peppercorns and marjoram. Cover and refrigerate. Color will begin to infuse in about 15 minutes. Drain few rings and finely dice several tablespoons for Green Sauce. Reserve remaining for asparagus garnish. Makes 2 cups.

The success of such a simple dish depends entirely on the quality of the ingredients, particularly the oil, which should be one of those peanut oils that has the heady fragrance of freshly roasted peanuts. They are equivalent in style to the best olive oils. For variety, try using cilantro instead of parsley and garnish the asparagus with toasted black sesame seeds.

ASPARAGUS WITH PEA- NUT OIL, SHALLOTS AND PARSLEY

2 pounds asparagus

Salt

2 to 3 teaspoons peanut oil or to taste

2 small shallots, finely diced

Finely chopped parsley, preferably Italian

Snap off tough ends of asparagus at point where they naturally break and trim broken parts with knife. If asparagus is very thick, peel lower ends.

Bring large kettle of water to boil, add salt to taste and asparagus. Cook until asparagus is bright green, tender but slightly firm, about 5 minutes, depending on thickness of vegetable.

Remove asparagus from water and place on clean towel to drain briefly. In large bowl combine asparagus with oil, shallots and parsley. Toss until mixed. Arrange on platter and serve. Makes 4 servings.

This soup makes the most of new spring vegetables and herbs when they are still a little scarce and not yet old hat. A couple of handfuls of sorrel, melted with leeks, tastes wonderful with the rest of the vegetables, though it will give the soup a slightly dingy, army-green color.

To bring out the flavors of the vegetables, use the trimmings (leek greens, asparagus stems and pea pods) to make a simple stock. It is cooked only 20 minutes so that the fresh taste of the vegetables is retained. If using frozen peas, use some in the stock in place of the pea pods.

ASPARAGUS AND PEA SOUP

1 pound thin asparagus, trimmed

4 small leeks, white parts only (about 8 ounces when trimmed)

1 pound fresh sweet pea pods

1 quart water

Salt

5 sprigs parsley

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 handfuls sorrel leaves, stems removed, leaves sliced, optional

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

1/2 to 1 cup half and half or whipping cream, optional

Garnish: several fresh basil or sorrel leaves, finely sliced; thinly sliced rounds of chives and blossoms; or chopped chervil

Slice top third of asparagus stalks diagonally, leaving tips whole. (If using thicker asparagus, cut tips in half, lengthwise.) Set aside. Coarsely chop remaining two-thirds of stalks for stock. Select 3 or 4 inches of most tender part of leek greens, rinse well and chop coarsely. Discard remaining.

Bring water to boil and add salt to taste. Blanch asparagus tips and sliced stems until nearly tender, rinse in cold water and set aside.

Select couple of handfuls of best-looking pea pods, chop and reserve. Shuck remaining pods and blanch peas in same boiling water (reserve shucked pods). Rinse in cold water and set aside. (If peas are very small and tender, they don't have to be blanched. Or use 1 1/2 cups frozen green peas).

Using same vegetable water, add asparagus stems, leek greens, shucked pea pods and parsley sprigs. (If using frozen peas, add 1/3 cup of them as well.) Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes, then strain out vegetables and discard. Set stock aside.

Thinly slice white part of leeks and rinse well. Melt butter in saucepan. Add leeks along with any water clinging to them and 1/2 teaspoon salt. If using sorrel, add now. Cook gently until leeks and sorrel have begun to soften, about 10 minutes, then stir in flour. Mix well, then whisk in strained stock. Bring to boil, then simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure flour doesn't stick to bottom. Puree soup in blender until smooth.

Transfer mixture to sauceppan. Add milk and partially cooked asparagus and peas (or remaining 1 cup frozen peas). Cook just until soup is at serving temperature. Adjust seasonings to taste. If necessary, thin soup with additional stock or water, or stir in half and half to enrich. Season to taste with pepper. Serve with fresh herbs scattered over top. Makes about 6 cups.

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