Jim Coleman | Asparagus, thy name is springtime

Posted: April 05, 2007

Q. My new in-laws have a small farm with a vegetable garden in which they grow different items for themselves and their extended family. Last year we got about 40 pounds of asparagus over about a two-month period. When I was growing up, we never had asparagus at home-maybe because I was one of six boys. We were what you call a "meat and potatoes" family. Please share different ways to prepare asparagus. Also, can I freeze some of the surplus? Thanks, from looking for anything but lemon butter . . .

- Chris S.

A. First of all, congratulations! Speaking for myself, I think marrying farming in-laws is better than marrying the Roto-Rooter in-laws. And hey, spring must have sprung because asparagus is king when it comes to symbolizing the arrival of the spring growing season. I'm going to place a small bet that you are not alone in your paranoid anticipation of a bumper crop, spending sleepless nights with the "I need new ways to cook asparagus" weight on your shoulders. Gosh, Chris, if you are getting what seems like an ocean freighter-load of asparagus during the spring, I can only imagine what it must be like at your house during the dead of summer when your in-laws ship in 18-wheelers full of zucchini, yellow squash, bell peppers, eggplant and (my personal favorite) pickling cucumbers. You know, you just can't have too many pickling cucumbers. . . . Of course, I'm kidding.

Just consider yourself lucky (all of us asparagus lovers do) that this lovely vegetable stands pretty much alone in the springtime. It doesn't show up in summer when it would have to jockey for position on your plate among the many other crops from the garden. So let's do this honorable vegetable proud and give you lots of cooking options and a few pointers. Remember, asparagus can be served in a soup, a salad, a pasta, a quiche and an appetizer as well as a side dish. And, you can boil, steam, roast or poach it, but no, Chris, you can't freeze it. Use it or lose it.

Preparing asparagus

_ Keep your fresh asparagus moist until you are ready to use it. For instance, place a damp paper towel around or on top of it.

_ For those of us who are buying asparagus (instead of inheriting it), remove the rubber bands when you bring the bunch of asparagus home; they will shorten the "shelf-life" of this and any other purchased vegetable.

_ When ready to cook, wash under cold water.

_ Cut the asparagus just before cooking. Slice where the stalks fade from the green area to the white. If it's not important that the stalks are all the same length, the best way to prepare asparagus is to hold each spear on both ends and bend it until it snaps, which is where it becomes tough. It's nature's way of telling you where you should have trimmed it.

Roasting asparagus

_ Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

_ Spread prepared asparagus spears on a large rimmed (and preferably nonstick) baking sheet. Do not overcrowd. Use 2 trays if needed.

_ Drizzle asparagus lightly with extra virgin olive oil. Toss asparagus to coat completely.

_ Occasionally shake pan while cooking for even browning.

_ Roast asparagus until crisp tender, approximately 11-17 minutes. Add salt and pepper if desired.

Steaming asparagus

_ Tie prepared asparagus into bundles for easier handling. This should allow you to stand asparagus up while steaming to ensure even cooking. Place bundled asparagus upright in a tall pot.

_ Pour 3 to 4 inches of water into pot.

_ Bring water and a large pinch of kosher salt to a boil. Once the water has begun to boil, cover.

_ Steam asparagus until crisp tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Cooking time will vary dependent on the thickness and age of the asparagus. Fresh asparagus requires less cooking.

Boiling asparagus

_ Fill a large pot with water and add kosher salt (approximately 1 teaspoon per quart of water.

_ Bring to a boil over high heat.

_ Add asparagus. Cook asparagus until crisp tender, approximately 4-6 minutes. If blanching to cook later or serving asparagus cold, submerge cooked asparagus into an ice water bath and remove to prevent further cooking. Remove the asparagus, place on a kitchen towel and pat dry before serving. Strain and keep cool.

Grilling asparagus

_ Soak wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes or more. Start grill.

_ Mix approximately pound of asparagus with 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon soy sauce in a re-sealable plastic bag and allow to marinate for at least an hour. Line up 4, 5 or 6 spears of asparagus and pierce near base and top with sharp skewers. Leave a little space between spears to aid cooking.

_ Grill speared asparagus over direct heat, 3 to 4 minutes per side, or until spears are crunchy-tender. Season with kosher salt and pepper to taste.

OK, Chris, lemon and butter are in the adjacent recipe, but it's not your father's Oldsmobile . . . I mean your father-in-law's lemon butter. *

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