Harbinger of Spring
Tall, slender stalks of asparagus standing at attention like soldiers guarding the pump on Uncle Loy’s farm come immediately to mind when I feel the first breezes of Spring. I’ve always loved asparagus. As toddlers, my sister and I used to pull up those first stalks, rinse them off under the cool water from the well, and eat them raw. When a plate of perfectly cooked spears are set before me, I anticipate their lovely crunch. They need no fancier topping than a touch of sweet butter and a splash of fresh lemon juice. I’m in heaven!
Native to the eastern Mediterranean region, asparagus cultivation began more than 2,000 years ago. Ancient Greeks and Romans prized asparagus for its unique flavor, texture and alleged medicinal qualities. They ate it fresh when it was in season and dried the vegetable for use in winter.
We Americans were not the first to crave this tasty vegetable year-round. King Louis XIV of France was so fond of this delicacy that he ordered special greenhouses built so he could enjoy asparagus all year! Even so, asparagus is considered a spring vegetable. In ancient times the harvesting of the wild asparagus was a springtime ritual.
Besides being delicious to eat, asparagus is good for your health. It’s packed with nutrients. One serving (about 5 spears) of asparagus is low in calories and very low in sodium. Asparagus is an excellent source of folic acid and is a significant source of Vitamin C, Thiamin, and Vitamin B6. Asparagus contains virtually no fat or cholesterol. It is an important source of potassium and many micronutrients. According to the National Cancer Institute, asparagus is the highest tested food containing Glutathione, one of the body’s most potent cancer fighters. Asparagus is also high in Rutin, which is valuable in strengthening the blood vessels.
Asparagus is a perennial member of the Lily family that also includes onions, leeks and garlic. Its name – asparagus — comes from the Greek meaning to sprout or shoot.
Most of the asparagus we eat in the USA is grown in California. It is grown by planting tiny plants called crowns or roots in a furrow. It takes a cycle of three years before a field can be harvested nearly every day for the full season of 60 – 90 days. There is the growing stage, the fern stage and the dormant or “sleep” stage, all are needed so the asparagus plants can grow big and strong.
Asparagus is easy to prepare ahead for a crowd. I like to prep it in the microwave and finish it in a sauté pan. Here’s how:
1 pound Asparagus spears (try to get fairly uniform sized ones, fat rather than skinny)
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter + 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1. Break of the root ends of each spear where it snaps naturally. Don’t throw away those “bottom ends!” They are so sweet, and are great for making soup. (See below)
2. Place the water and sea salt in a 10x6x2-inch Pyrex dish. Arrange the larger spears along the outside edges, with the tender tops toward the center. Cover the dish with waxed paper
3. Microwave on medium power for 8 minutes, rotating dish 1/2 turn if your oven doesn’t have a turntable.
4. Drain the asparagus and hold over ice cubes if you’re not serving right away.
5/ To serve, melt butter with olive oil in a large sauté pan that will hold all the asparagus in a single layer. When the fat is sizzling, add the asparagus and toss to coat every spear.
6. Serve at once with wedges of fresh lemon.
makes 2 servings
6 or 8 cooked asparagus spears
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 extra-large eggs (at room temperature)
3 tablespoons heavy cream
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
sea salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
1. Cut the asparagus spears on the diagonal into 4 pieces each. Heat a 10-inch skillet or omelet pan over medium heat and add the butter. When it has melted, add the asparagus pieces and the garlic. Toss to coat with the melted butter/
2. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs in a medium-sized non-reactive bowl until frothy. Add the heavy cream and the chives. Season to taste with the salt and pepper.
3. When the pan is sizzling and the asparagus is hot, add the egg mixture. Allow the eggs to settle for about a minute and then start bringing the bottom to the center. This will allow you to achieve sensuous large curds.
4. When all the egg mixture is cooked, turn off the heat and let the eggs sit in the hot pan off the heat for about 2 minutes before dividing between two warmed serving plates.
4. Serve immediately with hot buttered toast and cold Champagne.
Cream of Asparagus Soup
makes 6 servings
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 pound asparagus “bottoms”, cut into one-inch pieces
1 tablespoon chopped leek, white part only
4 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1 cup cream
Sea salt and pepper to taste
1. Braise onions in butter. Add all the remaining vegetables. Cook until tender. DO NOT BROWN!
2. Add flour and cook roux 8 minutes, stirring constantly. DO NOT BROWN!!!
3. Heat stock. Add hot stock slowly, stirring constantly until thick and smooth. Puree in batches in food processor. Bring back to the boil and season to taste.
4. Heat the cream, but do not boil. Add hot cream slowly, stirring to blend well. Serve.
[If you’re serving this for a “company dinner,” you may wish to dress the soup up by adding one cup cooked asparagus tips to the soup just before serving.]
Teacher’s Tip: This formula will work to produce a cream soup using any vegetable you choose. Experiment to find combinations of vegetables and herbs you like. Let your imagination be your guide!