Asparagus are so clever. Not only do they grace a garden with their delicate fern-like leaves long after the stalks have been picked and eaten, but they are never around long enough for us to get tired of them.

Canned and frozen asparagus are pale imitators of those that arrive fresh with the first signs of spring. But Americans, with their penchant for cooking green vegetables until they turn gray, are not only changing the color, they are destroying the flavor.

The Romans knew best: When they wanted to indicate the speed with which something could be done they said, "You can do it in less time than it takes to cook asparagus."

Asparagus is a word from the Greek. It originally meant all kinds of tender shoots picked and eaten while young. But even back in Roman times efforts to cultivate huge asparagus were successful, so successful that just three of them made up a pound!

"Colossal" asparagus are not found fresh in this country, but for some reason people usually can be seen carefully picking out the fattest asparagus from the piles in the grocery store. Since these asparagus were not bred to be fat, the size is an indication of age - old age. Another sign of age is a ridge stalk.

The thicker the stalk, the tougher it is. The best asparagus are only a little bit thicker tha a pencil. The fresher the asparagus, the more tightly closed the tip and the smoother the stalk.

The first asparagus of the season are best with just a little salt, possibly some melted sweet butter. After that, try the variations.