FOR A number of years I lived in the valley of the Genevoise in Switzerland. Between the peaks of the Alps and the Jura mountains, Geneva spends the winter and early spring beneath an almost uninterrupted layering of fog. By late March of each year cabin fever reached an intensive level. Only the appearance of the first asparagus, that harbinger of spring, saved me.
Asparagus has a relatively short season in Switzerland, and so a great deal of attention is given it.Virtually every restaurant suddenly includes a special asparagus card with its regular menu.
Here in the U.S., asparagus arrives along with the equipment for its preparation. If you select your asparagus properly, you will end up with firm, fresh-looking stalks that have a bright green color. They should be straight, without any white strips, and the buds at the tip should be close together, compact and pointed. The thicker the spear, the better the taste. But try to select stalks of uniform thickness to ensure even cooking.
To remove the tough outer layer of the stalk, so that stalks and tips cook in the same length of time, asparagus should be peeled; but a paring knife is apt to remove too much. Instead you might use the small (8 1/2"-inch-long) asparagus peeler. Attached by a screw to the razor-shar stainless-steel blade (4 3/4-inch-long and 3/4-inch-wide) is a 3-inch-long guard, which can be adjusted to control the depth of cash cut. By loosening the screw and pushing the guard forward you can get an extremely thin peel; move it back for a thicker one. When asparagus is out of season, you can use this handy tool on the though skin of broccoli stalks, which are available all year round.
For cooking asparagus, there are four schools of thought. The first just makes use of an adjustable steamer insert (those stainless-steel folding disks mounted on a tri-legged stand) that sell for $4 or less. Bring water to a boil in a work or deep frying pan, add the asparagus, cover and steam until just tender.
A second group believes that the spears must stand upright in a pot so that the tougher stems can be blanched while the more delicate tips are gently steamed. The third school insists that since the stems have been peeled, they will cook at the same speed as the tips and that it's more important to have the delicate asparagus resting flat in a cooker.
The fourth theory, to which I subscribe, holds that nothing more is required than a frying or saute pan and alimited budget. Bring 2 or 3 inches of water to a boil. Then gently add the peeled asparagus stalks. When the water comes back to the boil, time it for 6 minutes and then begin to test the stalk with a sharp stainless-steel knife. Be careful not to overcook -- texture is important, and asparagus is no fun to hold when limp. As soon as the stalks are tender, remove them with a spatula and drain. They can be served hot or cold with hollandaise sauce, melted butter, vinagrette sauce or just a few drops of lemon juice.
A half pound of asparagus, which is a sufficient serving for one person, contains only 35 calories, so it's an ideal vegetable for dieters. CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, asparagus peeler