Just about the time Washington's cherry blossom peak, so do the asparagus.
While the firm green spears may look wonderful in February as a sign that spring is really coming, the price is out of sight until April. Asparagus are in abundance from March until late spring when the price begins to climb again as the season ends. So this is the time to gorge if you are an asaparagus freak.
Selecting asparagus should be done with caution. Many area markets have taken to arranging the stalks in neat little pre-tied bunches. But it is better to pick stalk by stalk. Each spear should be firm and uniformly cylindrical; beware of stalks that are limp or have areas of wrinkled or puckered skin. Look for tightly bunled heads and as little white on the ends as possible.
The first step in preparing fresh asparagus is to wash the stalks carefully, using several changes of cold water. Asparagus grows in sandy soil and failure to wash well can result in a gritty surprise between your teeth. Then with a sharp paring knife scrape each stalk from about an inch above the point where the color becomes uniform toward the white end for about two inches. Break the stalk at that point and discard the rest.
Using two lengths of kitchen twine per bundle, tie the asparagus into bundles of about 18 stalks. rinse them one final time.
Cooking asparagus can be done in several ways: Steaming is preferred because it keeps the tender asparagus heads out of the cooking liquid. Asparagus can be steamed either in a steamer or in a pot tall enough to stand the asparagus on end. Boiling is effective, but great care must be exercised so the stalks are not overcooked.
In steaming asparagus, place the bundles of the vegetable in about an inch of salted water in a tall port or on a rack over water in a steamer. Cover tightly and allow to cook over high-moderated heat for about 10 to 15 minutes.
To boil asparagus, cover the bundles with salted water and bring to a boil.Cook covered for no more than 12 to 15 minutes over moderate heat.
The simplest, and some asparagus lovers argue the best, method of serving the vegetable is patted dry, dotted with a generous helping of butter, and dusted lightly with salt and pepper. Others says asparagus is best with a little salt and lemon juice. Both are wonderful.
There are some other preparations which are both simple and appetizing: ASPARAGUS AND BELGIAN ENDIVE (4 servings) 24 stalks fresh asparagus 2 large Belgian endive Romaine lettuce 1 teaspoon salt 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar 4 tablespoons olive oil 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Combine the salt, vinegar, oil and mustard in a jar and shake well. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Wash the asparagus, meanwhile, and scrape them in preparation for cooking. Either steam or boil the asparagus until they are al detente. Prepare a large bowl of ice-water. When the cooking is complete, plunge the asparagus into the ice-water and let them stay until it has completely cooled.
Wash the endive and cut off the stem end. Halve the endive heads lengthwise; then cut each half lengthwise into three spears.
On plates arrange a bed of romaine lettuce. Place 6 asparagus stalks per plate and place 3 spears of endive per plate among the asparagus. Spoon the sauce over each serving. CREAM OF ASPARAGUS SOUP (4 servigs) 1 pound fresh asparagus 4 cups water 2 teaspoons salt 4 cups rich chicken stock or broth 3/4 cup heavy cream Sour cream Chopped fresh dill (optional)
Cut the asparagus into 2-inch lengths, after washing, and discard everything beyond the point the uniform green color starts to change.Place the asparagus along with the water and salt into a saucepan. If the asparagus are not completely covered, add enough water to cover it. Over medium-high heat, bring the asparagus to a boil and cook for about 14 minutes or until they are tender. Turn off the heat and allow the asparagus to sit in its cooking liquor for 5 minutes.
Remove the asparagus with a slotted spoon to a blender or food processor, with a little of the cooking liquor, puree the asparagus.
Transfer 2 cups of the cooking liquor to another saucepan, along with the chicken stock and pureed asparagus; simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes or until the soup is warm. Stir in the heavy cream and simmer for one additional minute. Taste for salt. Place the soup in four bowls.
Garnish with a dollop or sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh chopped dill. ASPERGES AU GRATIN (4 to 6 servings) 36 stalks fresh asparagus 5 tablespoons butter 4 tablespoons grated gruyere cheese 1 tablespoon grated parmesan cheese 1/2 cup half and half 2 teaspoons corn starch, dissolved in 1 tablespoon water Salt Dash nutmeg
Wash and scrape the asparagus; cook either by steaming or boiling and drain it. Arrange the stalks in an ovenproof casserole dish, and set aside in a warm place.
In a saucepan, melt the butter over low heat and add the cheeses and half and half. Heat through until the cheese begins to combine with the butter and cream, stirring constantly. Do not boil. Add the dash of nutmeg and taste for salt. Add the cornstarch mixture and stir as the sauce thickens.
Preheat the broiler. Spoon the sauce over the asparagus and run it under the broiler until the sauce begins to bubble and brown lightly.
A wondeful accompaniment for spring lamb.