April 10, 2013 9:04:37 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Spring fever is in the air, and for foodies that means the welcome arrival of fresh spring vegetables. Asparagus is a frequent favorite on that list. Grilled, steamed, stir-fried, roasted, in salads or puréed in soup, this flowering perennial that comes in green, purple and white is a versatile hit. Low in calories and sodium and boasting protein, dietary fiber and all sorts of vitamins, asparagus' tender stalks are at their most delicious around this time of year.
The venerable vegetable has been consumed (and used for medicinal purposes) throughout the ages. It's pictured as an offering in an Egyptian frieze dating back to 3000 BC. A recipe for cooking asparagus is in the oldest surviving book of recipes, Apicius' third-century AD "De re coquinaria, Book III." Now that's staying power. But even today, asparagus is yielding surprises: A study out of a South Korean university suggests it may even be a cure for hangovers -- but that's a story for another day.
Buying, storing, cooking
In Martha Stewart's "Everyday Food" published in April 2012, we're advised to shop for glossy spears with scales (technically they are leaves) that lie flat against the stalk. Tips should be tight, firm and smell fresh. Woody ends should look moist and freshly cut.
Whether you prefer your asparagus thin and delicate or plump and meaty, be sure to buy spears that are about the same size to ensure even cooking. In the thick-or-thin debate, many people think thin spears are young and tender, while thicker spears are tougher, more mature. Instead, thickness indicates the age of the root system, says foodie Ruth Taber in an April 2013 article for the El Paso Times. A young crown yields thin spears. "Give the crown a few years to mature and tender plump spears will result," she writes.
If you're not going to prepare your asparagus right away, store the spears standing upright in an inch of water in a glass or jar in the refrigerator, up to three days. Taber also recommends covering the tops loosely with a plastic bag.
When you're ready to cook, be sure to rinse spears well to remove any grit.
To trim asparagus, snap off the tough end of one of the stalks. It will naturally break where the tender flesh begins, instructs "Everyday Food." Gather the rest of the bunch and, using the trimmed stalk as a guide, cut off the remaining ends with one quick slice. The trimmed bits can be used in a vegetable stock, if you like. There's no need to peel asparagus unless the skin is especially thick.
Asparagus has so many good things going for it health-wise, it's a great food to help your kids develop a taste for. Any parent knows that sometimes the best way to get a child to eat veggies is to hide them.
A kid-friendly ham and asparagus wrap suggestion from chefmom.sheknows.com keeps tender asparagus spears tucked inside a ham and cheese tortilla. Find other recipes, including an asparagus and shrimp stir-fry and an asparagus scramble (with eggs and cheese), at the web site.
As the days grow longer and Mother Earth yields her spring crops, try one or more of the asparagus recipes in today's food pages. Or fire up a grill and prepare a quick, tasty bunch over charcoal or hardwood embers. There are so many ways to find the awesome in asparagus.
ABSURDLY ADDICTIVE ASPARAGUS
Makes 4 servings
4 ounces pancetta, cut into 3/8 inch to 1/4 inch dice
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound asparagus, woody ends trimmed and sliced into 2 inch pieces on the bias
1 1/4 cup leek, thinly sliced crosswise (white and pale green parts only)
2 cloves garlic, minced
Zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon orange zest
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1-2 tablespoon Italian parsley, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
GARLICKY ASPARAGUS FLATBREAD
Makes 12 appetizer servings
1 one-pound loaf frozen pizza dough, thawed
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1/2 cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese
6 ounces mozzarella cheese, sliced or grated
1 to 1 1/4 pounds green, white, and/or purple asparagus, trimmed and cut in 3-inch lengths
1 medium yellow squash, sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions
HAM & ASPARAGUS WRAPS
Makes 4 servings
12 asparagus spears, woody ends cut off
4 whole grain flour tortillas
2 tablespoons light mayonnaise made with olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 thin, wide slices of black forest ham
4 thin, wide slices Havarti cheese
ASPARAGUS WITH CASHEWS
Makes 4 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger root
1 bunch asparagus stalks, ends cut
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 cup chopped cashews
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.