By Beverly Barbour
Skinny asparagus can be a tough chew
Buying asparagus is quick and easy but planting asparagus is a long-term investment. Asparagus is willing to go along with anyone who plants it by sending up spears in the first year or two. Growers say it is best to harvest very few, if any, spears the first year or two to allow the growing spears and ferns to make nutrients for the roots. If too much is harvested in these early years, you limit the life of the plants. A good bed will produce for 15 years or more, but yields begin to drop a little after a decade.
People who raise their own asparagus know that this is a crop which has to be harvested by hand. There is no machine that can go through the fields and choose the spears to cut. It is all done by hand and it has to be done daily because spears can spurt an incredible four to six inches a day. To add to the cost, the sorting by size must be done by hand. A single asparagus crown, or root ball, will produce spears in a range of sizes. Young healthy crowns tend to produce larger spears. Growers themselves eat the Extra Large or Jumbo size for two reasons: 1. There isn't much of a domestic market for Jumbos because Americans mistakenly think the smaller the spear the more tender. 2. Actually the reverse is true, just ask any European. Europeans, by the way, eat asparagus with their fingers or a little tool that gives them a good grip and keeps their fingers clean. Diamater really doesn't matter; the plants are thoughtful and produce a wide range of sizes. There is something to please everyone.
Competition from Mexico does matter, however. As labor is so much cheaper south of the border it is becoming harder for American asparagus producers to make a living. Many farmers are taking their asparagus beds out of production. No matter where it comes from (right now the California crop is being harvested and later most of it will come from Washington) the quick cooking vegetable is delicious and nutritious with a lot of vitamin A
ATTENTION: The one basic rule in cooking asparagus is that you must hold each spear in both hands, bend it until it breaks naturally at the point where the spear becomes tough. Discard the tough ends and then cook the spears for a very short time.
This is Dolores Cakebread's method for cooking medium size asparagus fresh from her garden. It is incredibly easy to overcook this tender vegetable.
Break off the tough bottom ends of the asparagus and rinse spears well.Bring enough salted water to cover the asparagus to a boil in a large frying pan. Add the asparagus, cover and let stand 3 minutes. Taste for doneness. If you prefer it softer let it stand another minute. Drain and serve.
OTHER WAYS OF COOKING ASPARAGUS
MICROWAVE: Arrange whole, trimmed asparagus in a glass baking dish with tips overlapping. Add 2 to 4 tablespoons water. Cover dish with plastic wrap (being careful not to let it touch the vegetable), turn back one corner to vent steam. Microwave at HIGH power for 3 to 6 minutes, and then let stand 3 to 5 minutes more.
STIR-FRY: Cut spears into 1-inch lengths. Stir-fry in hot oil, stirring constantly for 3 to 7 minutes.
GRILL: Brush spears with olive oil and place directly on the grill. Cook until browned and tender, turning several times, for 3 to 7 minutes.
ROAST: Preheat oven to 450 F. Put asparagus on a rimmed baking sheet. Add the olive oil and toss the spears with your hands to coat them evenly. Arrange them in a single layer and sprinkle with salt. Bake until the spears are sizzling and tender, about 10 minutes.
FINISHING TOUCHES FOR WARM ASPARAGUS
1. Sprinkle warm asparagus with grated Parmesan cheese, and drizzle with melted butter. Place under the broiler to brown cheese.
2. Drizzle olive oil and fresh lemon juice on warm asparagus, and then sprinkle with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper.
3. Pour a vinaigrette salad dressing, made with Dijon mustard, fresh lemon juice and shallot or thinly sliced green onion, over warm asparagus.
4. Serve with lemon wedges or homemade mayonnaise.
5. Serve with Hollandaise sauce.
6. Serve with mayonnaise, chopped onion or scallions, and chopped hard-cooked egg, salt and pepper.
7. Serve with aioli or other dipping sauces such as horseradish mixed with sour cream.
SOFT-SCRAMBLED EGGS WITH ASPARAGUS
This rich dish makes a delicious lunch for two. Can be served on toast, biscuits, pasta or as is.
1/2 pound asparagus
Cook asparagus. Combine the eggs, cream and butter in top of double-boiler. Add a generous pinch of salt and some pepper; whisk well. Bring 1/2-inch of water to a simmer over moderate heat in the bottom of the double boiler. Put top of double-boiler in place and reduce heat to low. Whisk constantly until eggs are thickened, smooth and creamy, about 20 minutes. Resist the temptation to raise the heat or you will create curds. About 1 minute before the eggs are done, whisk in the asparagus. Remove from heat, whisk in chives and adjust seasoning. Makes 2 to 3 servings.