FOR 2,000 years, the Romans treasured asparagus spears. Americans didn't adopt the vegetable until the mid-1700s. Available fresh from February through June at the market, asparagus has a short season. Frozen and canned, it's available year round. Lucky for you if you have an asparagus bed - it freezes beautifully.
When we were children we called it ``sparrow-grass'' - no doubt an easier, or misunderstood, pronunciation, of ``asparagus.'' But, in the same class with spinach, it wasn't a favorite childhood food.
When buying fresh asparagus, choose spears that are round, compact, and green in color, with tight tips. Any white stems should be removed. If lower stems are woody, peel them.
The best way to prepare asparagus is by steaming. Any pan will do with just a bit of water and a cover. Simmer asparagus for five or six minutes, or until desired tenderness. A tall percolator with basket removed is ideal. Add 1 cup of water, stand asparagus up in percolator, and in that case simmer for seven or eight minutes.
You can use the bottom of a double boiler, inverting the top over the bottom. Or cut asparagus in one-inch pieces and cook in a steamer basket over water until tender.
Asparagus has an aristocratic flavor. It's good with just melted butter and lemon juice. But there are many other ways to enjoy the vegetable - fresh, canned, or frozen may be used. Here are a few.
Savory Asparagus Souffl'e 1 1/2 cups cooked asparagus, chopped 2 tablespoons chopped pimento 3 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons flour 1 cup milk 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon lemon juice 4 egg yolks, beaten 4 egg whites, beaten stiff
Melt butter in saucepan, mix in flour, add milk slowly. Stir constantly until thick and smooth.
Add salt, pepper, lemon juice; mix well. Separately, mix pimento with asparagus; stir in egg yolks. Add to creamed sauce.
Cool 25 minutes; before serving pour mixture into buttered 11/2-quart casserole.
Fold stiffly beaten egg whites lightly into asparagus mixture.
Bake at 400 degrees F. for 25 minutes or until set.
Note: The souffl'e will fall slightly during baking, but it is still light and delicious.
Serves 4 to 6.
Cheese-Baked Asparagus 2 cups diced asparagus, cooked 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon paprika 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
Butter a round or square 8-inch baking dish. Toss asparagus with salt and paprika. Bake at 350 degrees F. 10 minutes or until heated through.
Sprinkle with mozzarella.
Bake a few minutes longer until cheese is melted.
Serves 4. Hot Ham-Asparagus Sandwiches 6 slices bread, wheat or white Butter 6 thin slices ham 18 asparagus spears, cooked 6 slices American or Cheddar cheese
Butter each slice of bread and arrange on cookie sheet, buttered side down. Place slice of ham on each slice of bread. Top with 3 asparagus spears. Cover with cheese slice. Bake at 400 degrees F. for 10 to 12 minutes. Serves 3 to 6.
Special Asparagus Salad 2 cups diced asparagus, cooked, chilled 1/2 cup chopped celery 1/4 cup diced stuffed olives 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts, optional 1/4 cup French dressing 1/2 cup mayonnaise or salad dressing
Drain asparagus well. Mix lightly with celery, olives, walnuts. Mix French dressing with salad dressing or mayonnaise. Stir into salad, using more or less as desired. Serve on lettuce leaves. Serves 6.