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Make Fresh Asparagus Taste Just Like Canned!

Canned asparagus was one of my favorite childhood foods. Really. Once my aunt, a considerably more adventuresome cook than her sister (my mom), served frozen asparagus. I didn’t dislike it, exactly, but. . .

And fresh asparagus--well, there was a major disappointment. I missed the dullish olive-green color, really mushy texture and slightly disagreeable aroma of canned.

My mother would heat the canned stalks with their liquid, add a pinch of salt and pepper and a nut of butter. When she served mashed potatoes with them, the asparagus juice became gravy for the potatoes, and so happy was I that I still get hungry simply reminiscing.

These days, asparagus is my favorite vegetable and a food that’s pretty near the top of the list of my favorite things. Happily, I’ve identified the exact flavor of childhood memory and know how to achieve it while maintaining the other charms of fresh.

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Asparagus needs to cook to a certain point of tenderness to release its wonderful, murky flavor and aroma. Cooked al dente, it has a different one--sort of grassy--and less of it.

To begin, there are a couple of things you need to know about buying asparagus. Although they are all the same variety, asparagus comes in three colors--white, purple and green. White asparagus is cultivated in mulch. Since they are always from mature root stock, the spears are very thick. And because the spears are cut as soon as they emerge into sunlight, they are squat. They are also very woody and must be heavily peeled.

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Since the plant uses its sugar store to develop its outer woody surface, white asparagus can be a tad bitter, but in an agreeable way. Since it’s not grown in sunlight, though, it’s lacking the chlorophyll flavor that the green variety has, so it’s more bitter than the fat green spears. Cook in boiling, salted water about eight to 10 minutes, or until completely tender. White asparagus is sturdier than the others, and that point of cooking perfection between crisp and overcooked is more forgiving. To me, white asparagus is as robust as a piece of meat.

Purple asparagus is white asparagus that is left to grow a bit taller in the light, but whose chlorophyll has not yet turned the stalks green. It lacks both the charming bitter edge of white and the sweetness of green. It too requires peeling, but it is generally less thick than white.

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Green asparagus is, in my opinion, the best. It has a nice balance between sweetness and bitterness and a strong “asparagus” flavor. Thin stalks of asparagus come from young root stocks. They are tender and don’t require peeling or preliminary blanching. They also have little flavor and are nice to throw into vegetable ragouts or used to garnish fish, poultry and white meats. They’re good cut up and stir-fried. They’re cute, but not serious. What else can you say? Simply trim off the bottom inch of the stalk and blanch stalks for 1 1/2 to two minutes in salted boiling water.

Medium-size stalks are sweet but don’t have what I describe as a strong essence-of-asparagus flavor, that flavor sort of between the astringency of an artichoke and the sulfuric odor of overcooked broccoli. They require no peeling, but the stalk ends are stringy and must be trimmed.

The best way of knowing where to trim is to snap each stalk individually. The stalk should snap at the point where it becomes tender. If you’re not inclined to snap each one, then do three or four, assume that all the stalks have about the same degree of woodiness and trim the rest of the stalks with a knife. Boil in copious amounts of salted water about five to seven minutes.

Jumbo green asparagus is the best of all, the king of vegetables. Its store of sugar has been used to develop the stringy, not woody, outer skin, and its green chlorophyll flavor has developed. The texture is tender yet meaty. Cook jumbo asparagus until tender, but not mushy, about eight to 10 minutes. Here you need to be more accurate than when cooking white asparagus. You want tender spears, neither crisp nor mushy.

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In order to avoid overcooking the tender asparagus tips, some people tie asparagus into bundles and stand them in water in specially designed asparagus cookers. I find that it’s more important to cook asparagus in a larger quantity of water than is possible using an asparagus cooker. If carefully handled, the tips shouldn’t get damaged, even when cooked in a large pot.

I prefer eating my asparagus simply, with a little lemon and butter or with a drizzle of vinaigrette. Use the jumbo variety to make a wonderful soup. Here’s where the rule “freshest is best” doesn’t apply. I prefer to use asparagus that’s a bit old--that has been in the market a bit too long--to make soup. It has a stronger asparagus flavor.

I’ve even developed a way of cooking asparagus that nearly reminds me of the canned variety that hooked me as a child. Actually it’s a lot better. Place the asparagus in a skillet with some salted water and cook it until the water is nearly evaporated. Whisk in a nut of butter and serve the asparagus in its own juices.

By the way, I’ve retried the canned version and, believe me, it’s best left as a memory.

ASPARAGUS IN ITS OWN JUICES

1 pound medium to large asparagus

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup water

1 tablespoon butter

Peel asparagus spears and cut off and discard bottom 1 inch.

Combine salt and water in non-reactive skillet. Cover, place over high heat and bring to boil. Remove cover. Add asparagus and cook, gently shaking pan, about 5 minutes until water has mostly evaporated. Stir in butter. Transfer to serving platter and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

ASPARAGUS WITH BALSAMIC BUTTER

1 pound medium or large asparagus

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons finely minced shallots or onions

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Peel and trim asparagus. Place in pan of boiling, salted water and boil 7 to 10 minutes, depending on size. Immediately remove from water and plunge into ice-water bath until chilled. Drain and set aside.

Combine butter, shallots and asparagus in medium non-reactive saucepan. Place over medium heat and cook, tossing asparagus in butter, until asparagus is hot, about 5 minutes.

Remove from heat. Place asparagus on serving platter. Add vinegar to butter sauce in pan. Pour over asparagus and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

PUREED ASPARAGUS SOUP

1 pound jumbo asparagus

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 small onion, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon flour

2 cups water or low-sodium chicken broth

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground mace

1/4 cup whipping cream

Cut off asparagus tips, finely chop and set aside on plate. Peel stalks and cut into chunks and set aside.

Melt butter in medium skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, about 7 minutes or until onion is tender and translucent. Stir in flour. Add water. Cover and bring to boil. Add asparagus stalks, salt, white pepper and mace. Lower heat and simmer 15 minutes.

Transfer mixture to food processor or blender and puree. Replace in skillet and place over low heat. Add cream and reserved chopped asparagus tips. Cover and reheat 5 minutes before serving. Makes 4 servings.


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