Asparagus tips

The elegant spring vegetable needs only the simplest dressing when eaten farm-fresh and lightly cooked.

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    Asparagus - green and white. White asparagus is not as well known or easy to find as its more common cousin.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff
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Old Man Winter slept in a little too long this year. Those eagerly awaited harbingers of spring took their sweet time awaking as well. But finally, finally the first robin won a tug-of-war with a reluctant worm on the lawn, and the slumbering daffodils stretched out and nodded to the flamboyant bursts of forsythia.

For the serious home vegetable gardener, nothing trumpets the season like the first asparagus when it pushes its way through the warming soil.

When I was a wee lad, our asparagus patch was conveniently located in back of the chicken coop. The hens' duty was to supply the fertilizer, which they did in copious abundance. Dad was in charge of tending and weeding, my job was to snap off the fattest stalks just before dinner, and Mother was in charge of overcooking it.

Now, Mother was, for the most part, an exceptional cook, but this was the 1950s, when lamb was considered practically raw unless it was cooked until it was gray as newly poured cement, and asparagus was only done when it resembled a croquet hoop when lifted with a fork.

So how long should asparagus be cooked? The Roman emperor Augustus had it right. When Augustus wished to dismiss some bothersome business at hand, he would proclaim: "Let it be done quicker than you would cook an asparagus!" In modern terms that could be interpreted as blanching it for 3 to 5 minutes in boiling, salted water.

Asparagus along with rhubarb are two of the few perennial vegetables. And if you have room, restraint, and the patience of Penelope, nothing is more rewarding than planting an asparagus bed. Although it takes three years before you can harvest your first crop, it will reward you with the freshest, sweetest, most tender spears for decades to come.

However you cook asparagus, always snap off the woody ends and peel about two thirds of the stalks.

When buying this early vegetable, look for stalks that are no less than 1/2-inch in diameter, with smooth skin, tight tips, and no appearance of shriveled spears. Asparagus loses its sugar (i.e., flavor) quickly after cutting, so plan on eating it the day it is purchased. If you must keep it longer, snap off the woody ends and store it in the refrigerator, upright, in an inch or two of water. Asparagus does freeze well, and keeps its bright color and flavor when blanched beforehand.

It can be argued that nothing beats fresh asparagus simply boiled for a few minutes in salted water, and served with a large pat of butter. However, if, like me, you eat your weight in this wonderful spring vegetable, the following recipes make for a delicious change of palate.

In the meantime, look for me in the latest Guinness Book of World Records as consuming the most asparagus in a single season.

ASPARAGUS WITH MUSTARD CREAM DRESSING

SERVES 4

2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and peeled
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 cup virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Paprika
Blanch asparagus in enough boiling salted water to cover, for 3 to 5 minutes.
Remove and drain on paper towels.
Beat egg yolks, lemon juice, and mustard with an electric mixer on medium-high speed for about 3 to 4 minutes. Turn mixer to low and slowly add oil. Stir in salt and pepper to taste. Cool to room temperature.
Serve asparagus on a large, shallow dish. Spoon some of the sauce over asparagus and sprinkle with a dash of paprika. Pass remaining sauce.

ASPARAGUS AND SHRIMP SALAD

SERVES 4

1-1/2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and peeled
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
6 peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound medium shrimp
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon prepared horseradish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Chopped Bibb, Boston, Salad Bowl lettuce
Blanch asparagus in boiling salted water for 3 to 5 minutes, or until slightly tender when pricked with a sharp knife.
Lift asparagus from water with tongs; drain on paper towel. When cool, cut diagonally in 2-inch pieces. Place asparagus in a large bowl.
Pour about 1-1/2 quarts of water in medium saucepan (enough to fully cover shrimp). Add bay leaf, lemon juice, peppercorns, and salt; bring to boil. Add shrimp, remove from heat; cover for 5 minutes; drain. When cool, shell and devein shrimp. Cut shrimp in half diagonally and add to asparagus. In a medium bowl, add mayonnaise, sour cream, lemon juice, mustard, horseradish; salt and pepper to taste. Beat with a whisk until ingredients are well combined and smooth; add to asparagus and shrimp; combine well.
Serve at room temperature over lettuce.

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