Sprinf has come in earnest when the first slender stalks of asparagus appear in the market. At the beginning of the season, asparagus is best served with just melted butter and lemon. Later on, when the stalks are thicker and not as tender, there are several sauces, often with an egg base, that are delicious with this vegetable.
There are two varieties of asparagus, white and green. White asparagus is prevalent all over Europe, but is more difficult to find in this country. The Germans are particularly proud of their crop of "spargel", which is grown without sunlight, producing a thick, ivory-white stalk.
Green asparagus is a rarity in Europe, but there is an abundance of it in the US. The earliest stalks come from California, and later from a number of states including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
When choosing asparagus at the market, select firm, crisp stalks with tips that are compact and tightly closed. The more open the tips, the closer the stalk was to flowering when picked. These older stalks are tougher and less sweet than the young ones.
There is a great difference of opinion as to how asparagus should be prepared and cooked. Perhaps the best advice is to try the various methods and decide which you prefer. Julia Child likes to peel the spears because they cook more quickly, retain their color and texture, and can be eaten all the way down to the end. This is the French way of preparing asparagus.
After it is peeled, she ties the asparagus in a bundle of about twelve stalks each, one string near the tips and another near the end. Leave one spear loose to test as they cook.
The French method of cooking asparagus is to plunge the bundle in a large kettle of rapidly boiling salted water, and boil it slowly, uncovered, until it is just tender, from 8 to 12 minutes. Lift asparagus out of the water, drain on paper towels, and serve. If asparagus is to be eaten cold, plunge it in ice water for a few minutes to stop the cooking process.
James Beard's favorite way to prepare asparagus is to snap it at the breaking point, lay the stalks flat in a skillet, barely cover with salted water, and boil them very rapidly. He tests the asparagus constantly after five minutes, until they are just crisply tender.
Asparagus may also be steamed, and this method maintains almost all of the vegetable's nutrients. Put one to two inches of water in 4-quart pot and place a collapsible steamer basket in the pot. Bring water to a boil over high heat and place trimmed asparagus in a single layer. Cover pot and cook until tender. Lift steamer from pot and serve asparagus immediately.
There is a special asparagus pot in which the stalks stand upright, with only their stems in water. The tips are cooked by the steam that rises from the boiling water. Some people find that a tall percolator works just as well. This method is particularly good for thick spears.
Asparagus also may be stir-field in a wok, a method which is becoming more and more popular for cooking vegetables. If you like the taste of fresh ginger root, it makes a nice addition.
If you are not going to use asparagus immediately, store it in a plastic bag, tip end first, in the vegetable section of the refrigerator. If very fresh, it should last for two days.
Here are some recipes. The first, asparagus with a sauce made with coddled eggs, makes a nice, informal appetizer for a spring dinner. Asparagus With Egg Sauce 4 eggs 1/2 cup butter 1 tablespoon lemon juice Salt and pepper 1 pound asparagus
Place eggs gently in pan of boiling water. Simmer over moderate heat for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and plunge in ice water. Remove shells. Egg whites should be just set.
Melt butter over low heat. In a medium bowl, mash eggs with a fork, and stir in butter, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.
Cook asparagus by one of the methods described above. Divide among 4 plates. Serve sauce separately in 4 small bowls to use as a dip for the asparagus spears. Asparagus Stir-fried 1 pound asparagus 2 tablespoons oil 1 garlic clove, minced 1 teaspoon fresh ginger root, minced 1/4 cup chicken stock 2 teaspoons soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch Salt
Snap asparagus at breaking point. Cut diagonally into 1-inch lengths. Blanch in rapidly boiling salted water. Heat wok or large skillet over moderately high heat, add oil and heat until very hot.
Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry for several seconds. Add asparagus and stir-fry to coat with oil and heath through. Add stock, soy sauce and constarch and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Season to taste and serve. Serves 2. Cream of Asparagus Soup 1 pound asparagus 4 cups chicken stock 1 small onion, finely chopped 1/2 cup chopped celery 2 tablespons butter 2 tablespoons fluor 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 2 egg yolks 1/3 cup cream
Snap asparagus at breaking point. Rinse and cut into 1-inch lengths, reserving tips. Simmer tips in small amount of water just until tender. Set aside. Place stalks in 3-quart saucepan with stock, onion, and celery. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer 10 minutes or until asparagus is tender. Pour soup into blender and puree at high speed about 30 seconds.
Melt butter in large saucepan over low heat. Stir in flour, salt, and pepper. Cook 3 to 4 minutes, stirring constantly.Slowly add asparagus stock and heat throuhg.
In small bowl, combine eggs yolks and cream. Add about 1/2 cup of hot soup to egg mixture, stir well. Slowly add to soup stirring constantly over low heat. Do not let soup boil. Add asparagus tips. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in soup bowls and garnish with chopped hard-cooked egg.