Asparagus Stalks Into Springtime

FEW things herald spring's arrival more than a robin's song, muddy boots, and fresh asparagus.

Let's talk about the edible one.

For perfect tenderness rubber boots must be marinated for at least ... (just seeing if you're with me.)

Slender, succulent, and always in vogue, asparagus is considered an aristocrat among vegetables. This relative of the lily is no culinary newcomer. Still, its annual arrival is always eagerly anticipated.

The tender green spears of sparrowgrass have been served since the days of the Caesars. A platter of warm asparagus could make Marc Anthony forget Cleopatra (for a short time), and even keep Caligula from pouting and plotting (for an even shorter time).

Even back then a quick cooking time was insisted upon. It has been reported that Emperor Augustus would decree something be done ``quicker than you would cook asparagus.''

Part of the appeal of asparagus is its versatility. It comes thick or thin, green, white, or purple. It may be served hot, room temperature, cold, or even raw.

Look for plump spears of consistent diameter with no sign of shriveled feet, and tight, smooth undamaged tips. Many wholesalers now keep asparagus in trays of water to help keep it fresh. Even so, plan to eat it pronto; like corn-on-the-cob, it quickly loses its sugar content and flavor. If that's not possible, slice a small portion off the bottom and prop the stalks up in a container with enough water to keep their feet wet. Cover loosely with a tent of plastic wrap, and refrigerate for a day or two at most.

Remember, if you are serving asparagus vinaigrette, or with any acidic sauce, do not dress the asparagus until seconds before serving as acid will turn it yellow.

And now the burning question: Forks or fingers? According to Miss Manners, who would be the first to tell you she has never put a foot, much less a finger wrong, fingers are the way to go. Unless, of course, the asparagus is overcooked and limp, or heavily sauced.

And how about a good word for canned asparagus? Sorry, there isn't one.

Asparagus and Shrimp Pie

Crust for 9-inch pie (see recipe below)

3/4 lb. asparagus, ends trimmed

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

3/4 lb. cooked shrimp, shelled, deveined, and halved

2 large eggs

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup coarsely grated Jarlsberg or Swiss cheese

Dash of Tabasco

1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Salt and freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Make the pie crust (see recipe below). Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a 9-inch pie plate with the pastry. Prick bottom of crust with a fork to allow steam to escape. Bake 12 minutes and cool on a wire rack. Cut asparagus into 1-inch pieces. Blanch for 5 minutes in boiling salted water; drain. Melt butter in a medium skillet, and saute shallots over medium heat until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in mustard, shrimp, and asparagus. Toss well, and spoon mixture into pie crust. Beat eggs with cream in a medium-sized bowl. Add the cheese, Tabasco, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour egg-cream mixture over shrimp and asparagus. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and bake 30 minutes.

Serves 6 to 8.

PIE CRUST:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled

1-1/2 tablespoons vegetable shortening, chilled

2-1/2 to 3 tablespoons ice water

Sift flour with salt in a large bowl. Cut in butter and shortening with a pastry blender, food processor, or pastry cutter until the mixture has the texture of coarse crumbs. Add just enough water to form a soft dough. Wrap, and chill for 1 hour.

Makes enough for one 9- to 10-inch single-crust pie.

Cold Asparagus in Mustard-Cream Sauce

2 lbs. asparagus, trimmed and peeled

3 egg yolks

3 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Blanch asparagus 5 minutes in boiling salted water; drain. Place asparagus in a serving dish, and chill. With an electric mixer in a large bowl, beat egg yolks with the lemon juice and mustard for 4 minutes. On low speed, slowly drizzle in olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Chill. To serve, spoon some sauce over the asparagus, and pass remaining sauce.

Serves 4.

Asparagus Risotto

1/2 lb. asparagus

3-1/2 tablespoons butter

2 large shallots (1/4 cup), minced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2-1/2 to 3 cups hot chicken stock

1 cup Italian (arborio) rice

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Cut tips from asparagus; reserve. chop stems into 1/2-inch pieces; set aside.

Melt 2-1/2 tablespoons of butter into a large heavy skillet, and saute shallots until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the asparagus stems; sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Cook 1 minute. Stir in 1/4 cup chicken stock and cook, stirring constantly, until almost all liquid has evaporated.

Stir rice into skillet, and add 1 cup of chicken stock. Stir once. Cook, uncovered over medium-low heat without stirring until stock is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat if liquid absorbs at a faster rate.

Pour 1 more cup of stock over rice. Cook without stirring, about 10 minutes.

Stir the reserved asparagus tips into rice. Add 1/2 cup of the stock, and cook until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, about 8 minutes. (If rice is not tender at this point, add more stock or hot water. If rice is too moist, raise heat slightly until liquid is absorbed.) Stir in cheese, sprinkle with parsley, and serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6.

* Recipes adapted from `Greene on Greens' by Bert Greene (Workman Publishing, 1984)

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