Asparagus

No vegetable is awaited with more impatience. The arrival of tender green spears from local farms marks the beginning of spring. Here are some fresh asparagus tips from Monitor food editor Phyllis Hanes. CHOOSING Thicker stalks are generally quite tender due to new growing techniques that cause the plants to grow to a large size quickly. The crisp, natural green stalk is preferred in the United States and England. Continental Europeans, however, favor creamy white asparagus with purple tips. Fresh white asparagus is seldom seen in the US. Canned white asparagus is available, but it's generally not as crisp and flavorful. PREPARING Once picked, asparagus loses quality rapidly and should be used promptly. Although most cooks break asparagus at the point where it snaps easily, discarding the bottom or root end, you will not waste as much of the stalk if you take time to peel the bottom end with either a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife. COOKING Steaming, stir-frying, and cooking in slow-boiling water are the best methods. Cook peeled spears in boiling water with a teaspoon or less of salt, partially covered, until water comes to boil; then cook about 4 minutes and test with a sharp knife for tenderness. Don't overcook. SERVING Try it with melted butter, Hollandaise sauce, mayonnaise, or any egg-based sauce. Or melt butter and mix in any of the following: grated cheese, lemon juice, finely chopped egg, fine bread crumbs, orange juice, or Dijon mustard. Very fresh asparagus is fine when served raw in salads or with a dip. Crustless Asparagus Quiche 1 pound fresh asparagus 3 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon salt or to taste 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1/3 cup grated Gruy`ere cheese 3/4 cup minced cooked ham 1 scallion, thinly sliced 3 eggs, beaten 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Remove tough ends of stalks and rinse. Cut into 1-inch pieces and place in saucepan with 1 cup water. Cook on medium-low 6 to 8 minutes or until tender. Drain; add butter, salt, and pepper. Toss to coat with butter. Place evenly in 9-inch pie pan. Sprinkle with Gruy`ere cheese, ham, and onion. Pour eggs evenly over all and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees F. 35 to 40 minutes or until eggs are set and browned. Serve in pie-shaped wedges. Serves 4 to 6. Asparagus Tips and Leeks with Scrambled Eggs 1 cup asparagus tips, or tips and stalks cut in 1 3/4-inch pieces 12 to 15 baby leeks, 6 to 8 inches long 3 tablespoons butter 10 eggs, beaten 4 tablespoons cr`eme fraiche or sour cream

Steam asparagus and 4 of the leeks for 2 to 3 minutes, or until a knife just pierces the thickest part of the asparagus.

Run under cold water and drain. Chop remaining leeks finely.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in large skillet and saute' leeks 1 minute. Remove from pan and set aside.

Melt remaining butter over medium-low heat; add eggs, let them sit about 1 minute, then stir with fork.

Add asparagus, leeks, and cr`eme fraiche, stirring until eggs are desired consistency.

Garnish each serving with a steamed leek. Serves 4 as a main course.

(From ``The New American Vegetable Cookbook'' by Georgeanne Brennan, Isaac Cronin, and Charlotte Glenn Aris Books, $14.95)

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