Asparagus! No matter what the weather is doing, once those tall green spears start turning up in the supermarket vegetable bins, the vernal equinox begins to seem real. It's spring. And the daffodil itself is no more welcome confirmation of everybody's favorite season.
This is one of the aristocrats of the vegetable kingdom. Not quite a truffle, perhaps, but far above the homely turnip and the unpretending carrot. The price says it. So does the flavor.
Because the taste is so special and so good, the first law of asparagus cooking is: Be quick. Five minutes at most in either the steamer or a pan containing a minimum amount of boiling salted water.
To have asparagus that's tender, crisp and primaveral green after such treatment, cut off the woody ends and peel the bottom two or three inches before cooking. And don't forget that sliced, raw asparagus adds a unique flavor note to a green salad.
Asparagus is wonderful hot or cold, in a soup, in a meat or fish mixture and in a souffle'. It has great potentialities as a garnish. A few stalks, judiciously cut up and distributed, enhance the looks -- and the taste -- of a dish of chicken or shrimp or ham and rice without requiring as much financial outlay as full portions of asparagus for everybody.
Meanwhile, for those who want to go all-out to greet the spring, nothing beats asparagus -- a quarter of a pound or more per person -- with a good rich sauce such as hollandaise or parsley lemon butter. Or, for that matter, my own asparagus butter.
Here are some of the possibilities:
ASPARAGUS BUTTER (2 generous servings or 4 small ones) 1 clove garlic Lower 2 inches discarded from 1 pound asparagus, peeled and cut in 1-inch pieces 1/2 cup ( 1/4 pound) butter, preferably unsalted
Simmer garlic clove and asparagus in boiling salted water about 5 minutes, or until barely tender. Pure'e vegetables in a blender or food processor with butter and 2 tablespoons of the cooking water. Serve with lightly cooked asparagus tips.
PARSLEY LEMON BUTTER (4 servings) 1/2 cup ( 1/4 pound) butter, preferably unsalted Juice and grated rind 1/2 lemon 2 tablespoons parsley, minced 1 tablespoon chives, minced
Melt butter, add remaining ingredients and serve with hot asparagus.
ASPARAGUS CRAB SOUP (4 servings) 1/2 pound asparagus 1 clove garlic 1 tablespoon butter 1 tablespoon flour 1/4 pound crab meat 1/4 cup whipping cream or cre me fraiche Salt and pepper to taste
Peel lower ends of asparagus stalks. Cut off tips with first inch below tips and set aside. Cook lower ends of asparagus stalks with garlic in boiling salted water to cover. When tender, pure'e vegetables, reserving cooking liquid. Melt butter in a large saucepan. Stir in flour and cook until golden, stirring constantly. Stir in asparagus pure'e and cooking liquid. The mixture should be the consistency of thick cream. Add water if it needs thinning. Add crab meat and asparagus tips and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in cream, correct seasoning with salt and pepper to taste and serve hot.
SCALLOPS WITH ASPARAGUS (4 servings) 1/2 pound mushrooms, chopped 1 bunch scallions, minced 2 tablespoons parsley, minced 2 tablespoons butter 1 1/2 pounds bay scallops 12 asparagus stalks 2 tablespoons dry white wine 1 egg yolk 1/2 cup whipping cream 1/4 cup bread crumbs 1 tablespoon butter 1 tablespoon parmesan-style cheese
Saute' mushrooms, scallions, parsley and butter 5 minutes. Add scallops and saute' 5 minutes. Set aside. Peel lower ends of asparagus stalks and cut in 1-inch pieces. Cook 5 minutes in boiling salted water. Drain and set aside. Whisk white wine, egg yolk and cream together and stir into scallop mixture. Place in baking dish and arrange drained asparagus pieces around the edges of the dish. Sprinkle with bread crumbs, dot with butter and sprinkle with parmesan-style cheese. Place under broiler 5 minutes or until lightly browned.