I MET MY first asparagus when I was 21, having spent my years resisting my parents in the matter of "strange" vegetable, i.e., all those that were not corn or peas.
The introduction came over a steak dinner. My host, an otherwise restrained man, lifted a stalk heavenward and intoned, "I know now that there is a God, for he created," lowering his voice to a whisper, "asparagus." tThe steak sat getting cold, while he finished nearly a pound by himself, the rest of us vainly stabbing at the disappearing pile.
I was hooked and still am. Now I'm not convinced asparagus makes a theologian's life any easier, but it does inspire awe and reverence. Plain, with season butter, as that first night, or intricately sauced, asparagus is one of spring's delights.
For the best quality, select firm, unwrinkled asparagus with tightly closed tips. The French method of cooking asparagus in one of the best and most reliable. With a small paring knife or vegetable peeler, peel the ends of each stalk, being careful not to break them.
Tie the asparagus, about 10 to 12 stalks per bundle, with soft string both around the base and close to the tips. Boil them in salted water until just tender -- the stalks shuld bend lightly when you remove them. To stop the cooking, place the pot under cool, running water, taking care not to break the stalks with a strong flow.
My preference is for asparagus vinaigrette, but the other recipes below are ones I've collected for the season when the stalks are at their peak of delicate flavor. ASPARAGUS VINAIGRETTE (2 servings) 1/2 pound asparagus 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar 3 tablespoons olive oil 6 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 teaspoon dijon mustard Salt and pepper to taste 2 hard-cooked eggs
Cook asparagus until tender; cool immediately (see basic instructions). Combine vinegar, oils and mustard in small jar. Shake well, then season with salt and peper; the vinaigrette should be highly seasoned. Add some mustard, if desired.
Divide asparagus between 2 serving plates. Top with enough vinaigrette to coat throughly, but don't douse with dressing. Before serving, chop up the whites and yolks across the center of the asparagus with the white on either side. Serve with extra dressing. Especially good when served as an appetizer. ASPARAGUS CHICKEN (4 to 6 servings) 1 pound fresh asparagus 2 white chicken breasts, skinned and boned Salt and pepper 3 tablespoons butter 4 green onions, finely chopped 1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered 3 tablespoons light rum 1 cup heavy cream 1 tablespoom butter mixed with 1 tablespoon flour
Peel asparagus and cut in 2-inch pieces. Cook in boiling salted water about 3 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water. Set aside.
Cut chicken breasts into thin strips of equal size as for a Chinese stir-fry dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons butter; add chicken and cook over high heat until raw look is gone, about 4 minutes, adding more butter if needed. Remove chicken. Melt remaining butter; add onions and mushrooms and cook briefly. Add rum and cream, and cook, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes. Return chicken and asparatus to sauce, cook until heated; add enough of the butter-flour mixture to thicken. Can be served over rice, if desired. STIR-FRIED ASPARAGUS (6 servings) 1 pound asparagus 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 clove garlic, minced 1 thin slice fresh ginger (about the size of a quarter), minced 2 to 3 tablespoons chicken broth 2 teaspoons soy sauce
For best results, select very thin asparagus. Prepare asparagus by peeling ends. Cut stalks on a very sharp diagonal into 1-inch pieces.
Heat oil. Quickly stir-fry garlic and ginger. Add asparagus, and stir-fry about 1 minute. Add broth, cover and cook over high heat 4 to 5 minutes, adding more broth if needed. Just before serving, stir in soy sauce. QUICK MALTAISE SAUCE (Makes 1 1/3 cups) 4 egg yolks 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 tablespoon organge juice 1/4 teaspoon salt Pinch white pepper 1/2 cup hot melted butter 2 tablespoons organge juice 1/2 teaspoon grated orange rind 1 pound cooked asparagus
Place yolks, lemon juice, 1 tablespoon orange juice, salt and pepper in a blender or food processor and blend on high, or process for about 30 seconds. aUndercover, and add butter very slowly, drop by drop, as blender runs on medium. In food processor, add slowly through feed tube. When half of the butter is added, you can proceed more quickly.
Continue blending or processing until thick and creamy. When sauce is thick, add remaining juice and organe rind and blend briefly. Serve over asparagus. Also good over broccoli. CURRIED ASPARAGUS SOUP (6 servings) 3 tablespoons unsalted butter 3 teaspoons curry powder 1 small onion, minced 3 tablespoons flour 4 cups chicken stock 1 pound asparagus, cut in chunks (reserve tips) 1 small potato, peel and diced Salt and pepper 1 cup dairy sour cream
Melt butter, add curry powder and onion and saute until onion is soft. Stir in flour and cook about 1 minute. Stir in chicken stock slowly, then add asparagus -- reserving tips -- and potato. Simmer 25 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Taste and add more curry powder, salt and pepper, as desired.
Puree vegetables and broth in blender or food processor until smooth. Meanwhile, cook asparagus tips in boiling salted water until tender. Drain and set aside. To serve, stir in sour cream and heat soup, but do not boil. Serve in individual bowls with asparatus tips floating on top. ASPARAGUS CREAM PIE (6 servings) 1/2 pound asparagus Pastry for one (9-or 10-inch) pie shell 1 cup heavy cream 6 peppercorns 1 small onion 1 1/2 bay leaves 1 teaspoon dried tarragon Freshly grated nutmeg 2 eggs 2 egg yolks 1/2 cup grated swiss cheese Salt and pepper
Peel ends of asparagus; cut stalks in 1/2-inch pieces. Cook in boiling salted water until tender -- do not overcook. Drain and set aside. Bake empty pie shell in 350-degree oven about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine cream, peppercorns, onion, bay leaves, tarragon and freshly grated nutmeg in saucepan and cook over low heat about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings -- cream should be highly seasoned. Strain cream and allow to cool slightly.
Beat eggs and yolks together well; add small portion of cream to eggs, then stir eggs into rest of cream. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place asparagus in bottom of pie shell. Top with cheese. Pour cream over asparagus. Bake in 350-degree oven 25 minutes, or until cream has set and top is golden.