By Beverly Barbour
If any food says loudly and clearly that spring is here, it is asparagus. The happy little green shoots come bursting forth shouting, "Here I am, look at me." And, look we do. And, then we cook.
Well, there is a step or two in between. First we have to bring the spears into our kitchen and if we are not going to cook immediately we should put their stems in water and leave them upright in the refrigerator.
To prepare for cooking, gently squeeze the stalks from the stem up, snapping them off at the point where they begin to feel tender. Don't throw away the tough stem ends. Instead, slice them thinly to break up the tough fiber, and add them to soups and stir-fries.
There are probably as many theories about cooking asparagus as there are about cooking a turkey. My friend Dolores Cakebread puts them in a big frying pan and brings them to a boil. She then removes the pan from the heat, covers it, and lets it stand for three minutes. It depends a bit upon how thick the stalks are, for thicker stalks you would let stand in the very hot water a minute or two longer.
Some people prefer the very thin stalks but I think the medium size have more flavor and are more tender. Other people like a thicker stalk but prefer it peeled. To each his own.
After you have eaten your fill of asparagus prepared your favorite way (with homemade mayonnaise is my favorite) think about trying something different.
Fried Eggs and Asparagus with Cheese
If you are Italian you use Parmesan cheese; if you are American you use whatever hides out in your refrigerator.
1 1/2 lb. medium asparagus, trimmed
Set oven rack in upper third of oven then preheat to 425 F. Cook asparagus until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Butter gratin dishes using 1/2 tablespoon butter total, and then divide asparagus between them. Season with salt and pepper, then sprinkle with half of the cheese. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons butter in skillet over moderately high heat until foam subsides, then fry eggs, seasoning with salt and pepper, until whites are barely set, about 2 minutes. Carefully transfer 2 eggs to each gratin dish, placing on top of asparagus. Sprinkle eggs with remaining cheese and drizzle with any butter remaining in skillet. Bake in upper third of oven until cheese is melted and eggs are cooked, 4 to 5 minutes for runny yolks. Makes 2 servings.
Roasted Asparagus and Mushrooms
Roasting asparagus intensifies its flavor and it's easy to do. You can use any kind of mushrooms in this dish.
1 pound medium asparagus, tough ends removed
Preheat oven to 475 F. Arrange asparagus on baking dish with a rim. Drizzle with oil and turn to coat entirely. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast until just tender, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, melt butter in large skilled over medium-high heat. Add shallot; sauté 1 minute. Add mushrooms; sauté until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Cover and cook until mushrooms are tender, about 3 minutes. Add wine; cook uncovered until wine is absorbed, about 2 minutes. Stir in parsley and tarragon. Season with salt and pepper. Divide asparagus among 4 plates. Top each serving with mushrooms. Makes 4 servings.
Parmesan Roasted Asparagus
Italians often eat their vegetables before the main course. This is good as a first course. Or, if you want to use it as a main course, serve it topped with a fried egg.
2 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus (about 30 large stalks)
Preheat oven to 400 F. If stalks are thick, peel the bottom half of each. Lay them in a single layer on a sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast 15 to 20 minutes, until tender. Sprinkle with cheese and return to oven for another minutes. Serve with lemon wedges. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Good hot or cold, it is even good in sandwiches. I like to add thinly sliced tomato on top after you've arranged the spears.
3/4 pounds fresh asparagus (about 9 stalks)
Break off tough ends of spears and slice each spear on the diagonal about 1/4-inch thick, leaving the tips whole. Bring salted water to a boil, add asparagus and boil until just tender, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop cooking. Whisk eggs until well blended. Whisk in Parmesan, parsley and seasonings. Heat 10-inch pan over moderate heat. Add butter and swirl to cover pan bottom. Add asparagus and stir to coat with butter. Add eggs and stir briefly to make sure the asparagus are evenly distributed. Reduce heat to low and cook without stirring until frittata is almost completely set, about 20 minutes. It will still be a little jiggly in center. While frittata cooks, preheat broiler and arrange rack about 8 inches from top. Put skillet under broiler and cook until firm and lightly colored. Let rest a few minutes before transferring to a platter or cutting board. Makes 4 servings.
Don't spare the asparagus; Enjoy it while it's tender!