Thick or thin, asparagus makes a point

Jennifer Wolcott Feature writer of The Christian Science Monitor

French cooks know bigger is better, at least when it comes to asparagus. So learned Amanda Hesser during her one-year stint cooking at a chteau in Burgundy. "Big, beasty white asparagus are highly valued in France," says the American food writer, who had always thought thin was in.

This is just one country's opinion - albeit a country that happens to know its way around the kitchen.

But the universally loved, early-spring vegetable has an almost political, hot-button way of splitting nations. Germans and Belgians side with the French, while the British, Italians, and Americans generally prefer green or purplish slender stalks. The French like asparagus cold with olive oil, Italians prefer a dusting of Parmesan, and Americans slather it with butter or enrich it with Hollandaise sauce.

Some say fatter stalks are more tender. Others say the opposite. But most agree color doesn't affect flavor, and such preferences are more a matter of aesthetics, habit, or practicality.

The yellow or white stalks are pale because they are kept mounded with soil to deprive them of sunlight, and picked just as they poke through the ground. Some people find the look clean and delicate, others see them as anemic.

Although many kitchen gadgets are useless gimmicks that cooks can do without, an asparagus steamer isn't one of them. Asparagus tips are not only the most prized part of the vegetable, but also the most fragile. They cook faster than the stem. They will stay intact, however, when stalks are steamed upright with stems immersed in water and the tips above it. Keeping stalks tied in a bunch prevents them from splaying in all directions when removed.

To avoid asparagus that turns to mush at first bite, timing is everything. Green and purple stalks should be steamed for only 4 to 5 minutes or boiled for seven to 12 minutes - depending on thickness; white for double that time. Overcooked asparagus is not only a disaster of texture, but also a threat to flavor as sweetness is lost with every extra minute.

Mark Bittman, author of "How to Cook Everything," suggests asparagus spears be cooked until they are "not so crisp that they crunch when you bite them, but not so soggy that they begin to fall apart." To test this, he suggests inserting a skewer or thin-bladed knife into the thickest part of the stalk while it's cooking, to test for doneness.

A cultivated member of the lily family, asparagus is not a crop for the impatient gardener. It can take years before those gratifying first stalks burst forth out of the earth. After that first harvest however, 40 or more years of picking could follow.

Those who don't have a kitchen garden, however, can find asparagus almost as fresh at a local farmstand. Even supermarkets often offer fresh, locally grown spears during this season when it is so popular and plentiful.

Whether you prefer thick or thin spears, choose stalks that are equal in size so they will cook evenly, tips that are tightly budded, and be sure the thick end of the stem is not dried up and shriveled.

The fresher the spears, the less you'll have to fuss back home. Peeling is usually necessary only with white asparagus, which has a tougher, more woody stem.

For other varieties, simply snap off the tough end of the stalk where it breaks naturally, boil or steam, then drizzle with melted butter and lemon juice or vinaigrette. (Do not dress asparagus with any acid-based dressing until just before serving as it will turn it an unappetizing grayish color.) Or go naked. Unadorned asparagus at the peak of its season is many people's idea of perfect finger food. And, yes, unless the asparagus is heavily sauced, or overcooked and droopy, you may use your fingers.

As the season trails off in May, you may want to try it another way. The following recipe won't set a speed record but it will dress asparagus up a bit. And it will make a highly satisfying meal of what, despite its universal appeal, is too often relegated to a side dish.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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