Welcome spring with fresh asparagus

Fresh asparagus is a sign of spring for anyone who likes native fresh vegetables, especially those who have it in their gardens. Spring is its true season even though it's in most big markets from February through June and from September through December.

Cooking and preparing asparagus is always an interesting, if not controversial, subject because there are so many different opinions, depending on the cook and the size and quality of the asparagus.

Should you buy thin green spears rather than the thick, fat ones?

Should it be cooked standing up or flat in a wide pan?

Should the ends be broken at a certain point or cut with a knife?

To peel or not to peel?

To stream or submerge in boiling water?

And, can it really be eaten with fingers rather than a fork?

Although it's not the most important of these questions most Americans find it amusing that etiquette books say it is OK even at a formal dinner to pick up the green stalk without the aid of a fork.

In other countries asparagus eaters are not so formal. English and European cookbooks often say to serve it warm or cold rather than hot from the pan, because it is eaten with the fingers.

At family meals in France, the dinner plate is propped up on one side with an overturned fork; the asparagus is then picked up with the fingers and dipped into the lemon butter or sauce in the tilt of the plate.

When it comes to purchasing and preparation, since it's a stalk vegetable high in cellulose fibers, the best asparagus to choose are the young ones and they should almost always be trimmed of the tough fibers at the end because they don't get soft by cooking.

Size is not important except that if they're all the same size they will cook evenly. When shopping, choose young asparagus with tight buds, avoiding those with seedy or widely spaced buds at the tip.

Another reason fro peeling is so the ends will cook as quickly as the tips. First snap off the root end by bending it near the bottom. It breaks at the point where it is tough or inedible.

Peel with a vegetable peeler or small, sharp knife, removing the tough layer at the base of the stalk to within an inch or two of the buds, where the skin is thinner. The peelings can go into soups.

Cooking asparagus takes a little care because of its long, slender shape and because the tips cook quicker than the stalk end. The basic method is to immerse it in a large kettle of boiling water tied in bundles and to cook about 7 minutes or more according to size. Cooking the stalks standing upright is a better method, if you have a container for it, because the stalks are cooked in the boiling water and the tops are steamed and not overcooked.

When it comes to choosing the sauce, the best idea comes from Roy andries de Groot in his "Feasts for All Seasons" (New York: McGraw Hill. $7.95). He says he chooses the sauce according to the age and texture.

He uses plain melted butter for the first, tiny, delicate spears, then bolder sauces such as lemon-butter, French Creme Chantilly and a Sauce Pecandine made with pecans, tarragon vinegar, and butter for the stronger, peak-season stalks.

The favorite sauces are Hollandaise or melted butter and vinaigrette made with light olive oil, vinegar, or lemon juice. Italian cooks put grated Parmesan on the cooked tips and heat or grill until the cheese melts.

These recipes are from "Asparagus, The Sparrowgrass Cookbook" by Autumn Stanley (Pacific Search Press). Basic Asparagus Omelette 3 eggs 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon cold water 1 tablespoon butter or margarine 2/3 cup cooked and diced asparagus Hollandaise Sauce

With wire whisk or rotary beater, beat eggs with salt and water until we mixed. Slowly heat a 9-inch heavy skilled or omelet pan until a drop of water sizzles. Add butter but don't let it brown.

Pour egg mixture quickly into skillet and cook over low heat, lifting occasionally with spatula to let uncooked parts run underneath. When partly set , add asparagus mixed with Hollandaise Sauce. Fold over, allow to complete setting, and turn our on a warm plate. Serve at once with extra sauce. Serves 1 or 2.

Variations: Add grated cheese, Swiss or one of your own favorites, shredded ham, chipped beef and cream cheese, shrimp, crumbled bacon, mushrooms, chicken, or chicken livers. Sausage and Asparagus Supper 2 pounds mild country sausage 1 small bunch fresh asparagus 1 10 1/2-ounce can cream of mushroom soup 1/2 cup chopped mushrooms 3/4 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese 4 servings asparagus or spinach-flavored noodles 1 cup buttered bread crumbs

Brown sausage gently and pour off drippings. Crumble and keep hot. Cut asparagus into bite-size pieces and cook until crunchy-tender, about 5 minutes. Draim saving 1/2 cup liquid. Keep asparagus hot.

Mix soup, mushrooms, asparagus liquid, and cheese in saucepan and cook over low heat until well mixed and thick. Keep hot.

Prepare noodles according to package directions; drain and pour into buttered casserole dish. Add sausage, asparagus, and cheese sauce in that order. Top with bread crumbs and place in hot oven at 425 degrees F., just long enough to brown crumbs. Serves 4. Asparagus Quiche 19-inch pie crust shell 6 to 7 ounces chopped ham 1 pound asparagus, cut in 2-inch pieces 3 eggs, beaten 1/2 cup milk 1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese 2 tablespoons onion, finely chopped 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Spread ham over piecrust. Simmer asparagus in boiling water for 4 to 5 minutes, drain and layer over ham. Combine and mix together eggs, milk, cheese, onion, salt and nutmeg. Pour into pie shell. Sprinkle cheese over top. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 25 to 30 minutes.

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