ASPARAGUS lovers pursue their passion with methods that range from slavish to slapdash. Cooks may be skinners or non-skinners. Some prefer to remove each little "ear" along the stalk. Then there is the steaming vs. boiling controversy.
Whatever the cooking method, asparagus is a seasonal delight that is eagerly anticipated and savored during the time it's available--February through June. Its versatility allows it to stand alone or be combined in soups, salads and main dishes.
Like corn, asparagus is best when freshly cut, rushed to the kitchen, cooked quickly and eaten at once. The Emperor Augustus had something to say that proved how well he understood the delicacy: Citius quam asparigi conquintur, "as quick as cooking asparagus."
The preparation techniques depend on the size and condition of the asparagus. If stalks are large and likely to require long cooking that will disintegrate the tender tips, then skinning is advisable. If the rainy weather spattered sand on growing spears, it is wise to remove the little "ears" along the stalks to remove hidden grit. If the stalks are tender and not gritty, nipping off the ends and rinsing is all that's necessary. This last is the optimum condition for fresh spears.
As for steaming vs. cooking, both methods are fine, but in either case, the key word is brief. Asparagus should be cooked until tender, and never until it is mushy and soft. The tips of the tapering stalks will cook more quickly than the thicker ends, which is why many cooks tie asparagus into bundles and put them in a steamer vertically. Others wash and trim the asparagus, tie the stalks in a bundle with kitchen string and gently lower them into boiling water.
I contend that really fresh asparagus can withstand the brief cooking that is necessary in an open kettle of boiling water without damage to the tips. A broad vessel permits spreading the stalks into a thin layer or two, so that it cooks very quickly and evenly. When the asparagus is done, drain it in a colander and refresh it with cold water, or remove it from the hot water with tongs and place it briefly on paper towels to absorb excess moisture. A heated serving dish ensures that it will arrive at the table hot. If it is to be served cold, rinse it with cold water and spread the spears on paper towels to drain before refrigerating.
Two diners with hearty appetites can easily eat a pound of asparagus, but when combined with other ingredients or in a salad, a pound may serve three or four. Many cooks prepare more than is needed for one meal and use leftovers for a cold salad. (If you find bargain asparagus in bulk, be advised that fresh asparagus freezes well.)
The crop started from asparagus crowns takes three years to produce; started from seed, it takes a year longer. According to the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. cultivates about 83,000 acres of asparagus, most of it in California, Washington and Michigan. The greatest portion of the 1.67 million hundred-weight(pounds) are sold fresh.
While fresh asparagus is best, it may be kept a few days if placed unwashed in a plastic bag and stored in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator. Limber spears may be restored by having trimmed ends soaked briefly in cold water.
The rich green color and interesting shape of asparagus give it a dramatic appearance at the table. I like to present it on a bright yellow, majolica platter garnished with lemon. However you serve it, remember: in the best lovers' tradition, it is permissible to eat asparagus spears with your fingers. FRESH ASPARAGUS WITH BUTTER AND LEMON (6 servings) 2 pounds fresh asparagus Salt 6 tablespoons unsalted butter Juice of 1 lemon
Clean asparagus. In boiling, salted water to cover, cook until just tender, about 3 to 8 minutes, depending on age and size of the spears. Remove with tongs and drain on paper towels. Melt butter in a small saucepan over very low heat. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice. Transfer drained asparagus to a hot serving platter and dress with the butter and lemon sauce. ASPARAGUS AND TOMATO CASSEROLE (4 to 6 servings) 1 pound fresh asparagus 1/2 cup creamy Italian dressing 2 tomatoes, sliced thinly 4 eggs, slightly beaten 3/4 cup milk 3/4 cup biscuit mix 2 scallions, sliced Parmesan cheese
Blanch asparagus. Marinate 1 hour or more in Italian dressing. Slice tomatoes and marinate also. Spread asparagus in casserole; top with tomato slices. Combine marinade with eggs, milk, biscuit mix and scallions. Pour over asparagus and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. FAY WILLING'S ASPARAGUS HAM ROLLS (4 servings) 16 asparagus stalks, cooked 4 thin slices baked ham 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons flour 1 cup milk Salt and pepper 1/2 cup grated, sharp cheddar cheese Toast points
Put 4 asparagus stalks on each ham slice. Roll up, fasten with toothpick. Broil for 5 minutes on each side. Meanwhile make a white sauce by melting butter in a medium saucepan. Whisk in flour. Add milk, whisking constantly, and season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until thick. Add cheese and stir until melted. Pour sauce over ham rolls. Broil until golden brown and garnish with toast points (breads trimmed of their crusts, toasted and halved across the diagonal). SAVORY SAUCE FOR ASPARAGUS (Makes 3/4 cup) 3 tablespoons cider vinegar 1/2 cup olive oil 3/4 teaspoon prepared mustard 1 tablespoon each finely chopped parsley, raw spinach and watercress 1 medium onion, minced
Combine all ingredients and blend thoroughly. Also good on other vegetables served cold, seafood and salads. CHEESE BROILED ASPARAGUS (Any amount) Asparagus Romano cheese
Put cooked asparagus spears in a shallow baking dish. Sprinkle generously with grated romano cheese. Heat under broiler. LIGHT ASPARAGUS VINAIGRETTE (6 servings) 1 1/2 pounds small asparagus spears, cooked and drained 1/2 cup vinegar 1/2 cup water 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 2 tablespoons chopped chives 2 tablespoons dijon mustard 1/2 teaspoon dry tarragon 1/2 pound fresh spinach leaves 2 medium tomatoes, cut in wedges
Place cooked, drained asparagus in shallow container. Combine next 6 ingredients and mix well. Pour dressing over asparagus and chill 3 to 5 hours. Place asparagus on spinach leaves, pour dressing over salad. Garnish with tomatoes. ASPARAGUS SALAD/CORN RELISH DRESSING (4 servings) Salt and pepper to taste Juice of 1/2 lemon 1 pound asparagus, cooked and drained Shredded lettuce 2 tablespoons mayonnaise 1 cup corn relish Pimiento strips
Sprinkle salt, pepper and lemon juice over chilled asparagus spears. Place shredded lettuce on individual salad dishes. Place asparagus spears on lettuce. Mix mayonnaise and corn relish and top salad with the dressing. Garnish with pimiento strips. This is very good with ham. EASY CHICKEN ASPARAGUS PIE (4 servings) 10 1/2-ounce can condensed cream of celery soup 1 cup (or more) cooked asparagus, cut in bite-sized pieces 1 cup cooked cubed chicken 2 hard cooked eggs, chopped 1/3 cup finely chopped celery 2 tablespoons pimientos, chopped 1/3 cup sherry Dash mace Prepared 9-inch pastry crust top
In 9-inch, round, shallow baking dish, combine all ingredients except crust. Cover with pastry, make several slits on top. Bake 20 minutes at 450 degrees, or until golden brown and hot. ASPARAGUS WITH CRABMEAT SAUCE (4 servings) 1 pound asparagus, cooked 2 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon onion, grated 1 cup half-and-half 1/2 teaspoon worcestershire sauce 1 cup crabmeat Parsley, finely chopped Lemon wedges
Cook asparagus until tender, drain and keep warm. In saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add flour and salt, stirring to mix well. Add onion, half-and-half and worcestershire sauce, stirring constantly.
Stir over heat until thickened and add crab. Arrange hot asparagus spears on warm luncheon plates, spread crab sauce across middle of spears, sprinkle with finely chopped parsley. Garnish with lemon wedges and serve at once. Good with hot buttered toast sprinkled with parmesan cheese, or small hot biscuits. RIGATONI WITH ASPARAGUS, EGGS AND TOMATOES (6 servings) For the sauce: 1/2 cup olive oil 2 garlic cloves 1 cup peeled plum tomatoes 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 pound fresh asparagus 2 eggs 4 tablespoons grated romano cheese Freshly ground pepper For the pasta: 6 quarts water 6 teaspoons salt 1 pound rigatoni or similar macaroni
In a large frying pan, cook garlic in olive oil over medium heat until golden. Discard the cloves. Mash the tomatoes with a fork and add to the skillet. Add the salt and cook, stirring from time to time, for 15 minutes or until it thickens and darkens.
Break off and discard the tough bottoms of the asparagus. Cut the rest into bite-sized lengths. Cook in abundant, boiling, salted water until tender but still slightly crisp, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Beat the eggs in a serving bowl or platter. Add the cooked, cooled asparagus, cheese and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.
Cook and drain the pasta and add immediately to the asparagus and eggs. Toss gently, letting the heat of the pasta cook the eggs. Add the tomato sauce, toss again and serve. ASPARAGUS PARTY ROLLUPS (Makes 12) 12 thin slices white bread, crusts removed 8 slices bacon, cooked, drained and crumbled 2 4-ounce packages cream cheese, softened 12 cooked asparagus spears Melted butter
Roll bread with rolling pin to flatten slightly. Mix bacon bits and cream cheese. Spread mixture on bread slices. Place an asparagus spear on each slice of bread and roll up. Place on baking sheet, seam side down and refrigerate until time to serve. Just before serving, brush with melted butter and place under broiler until golden. Serve hot. TOMATOES STUFFED WITH ASPARAGUS (12 servings) 2 pounds fresh asparagus spears 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced 3 to 4 scallions, chopped (bulbs with greens) 1/2 cup oil and vinegar salad dressing 2 teaspoons basil, chopped 12 medium tomatoes 1 teaspoon salt (approximately), to taste 1 teaspoon parsley, chopped
Cook asparagus, drain and cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces. Combine asparagus, mushrooms, scallions, salad dressing and 1 teaspoon basil. Toss and chill for at least 2 hours. (Toss occasionally during chilling.) Cut thin slice from top of each tomato and scoop out the pulp, leaving thick shell. Sprinkle inside with salt to taste and chill. Just before servng, spoon asparagus mixture into shells. Top with remaining basil and parsley and pour marinating liquid over all.