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Asparagus dishes are a snap to prepare

| Wednesday, April 2, 2008

It sounds like a listing of universities involved in a sports tournament: Mary Washington, Viola, Jersey Knight, Lucullus.

In all probability, however, you might have toted one of these varieties of asparagus home from the market, one might be growing in your home garden or growing wild down the street in a field or vacant lot. Asparagus is coming into season in Western Pennsylvania; consumers have been snapping up stalks from California that began arriving in January.

Jason Culp, executive chef at The Pines Tavern in Gibsonia, says he typically sees the first stalks from the restaurant's 13-acre garden emerging from the ground the week before Mother's Day, which this year is May 11. If outdoor temperatures improve and there is sufficient rain, harvest might start in the next week or two.

"This is the fifth year of production," says Culp, who farms 2 acres of the garden, which also features 35 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, as well as herbs, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, peas, artichokes, zucchini and five types of sweet peppers. What he harvests daily from the garden, he uses for dinner specials.

Asparagus plants, called crowns, take five seasons to fully mature, so, if the weather cooperates, the chef expects a bounty soon. He will have two crops -- spring and fall -- because of his harvesting methods. Asparagus -- he planted an heirloom variety instead of a hybrid -- can grow as much as 4 inches in 24 hours, he says, so the plants need attention every day, or they will "go to fern," sending up thin, green strands that develop leafy fronds. While this renders a stalk inedible, the plant recycles nutrients to its roots and to the ground for production the following year.

Culp's favorite way to serve asparagus is roasted, then seasoned with sea salt and olive oil and a spritz of fresh lemon juice. In past menus, he has served asparagus with crab cakes, filet of beef, pan-seared barramundi and a baked mixed seafood cake.

Six Penn Kitchen, Downtown, under executive chef Chris Jackson, features roasted asparagus with parmesan cheese as a side dish on its late-winter menu. Down the street, Sonoma Grille restaurant, owned by French chef Yves Carreau, grills the vegetable to accompany wild mushroom and goat cheese strudel and grilled filet mignon. Asparagus also is a favorite side dish at area steak houses.

"Asparagus is one of my favorite go-to ingredients this time of year, first and foremost for its flavor, texture and color," says food writer and photographer Heidi Swanson -- whose most recent book, "Super Natural Cooking: Five Ways to Incorporate Whole & Natural Ingredients Into Your Cooking" (Celestial Press, $20 paperback), has been nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. "The nutritional benefits -- it's folate-rich -- are an added bonus."

The ways to use asparagus are infinite, she says.

"One of the only ways to screw it up is to overcook it. Mushy asparagus is no good. A quick swim in a pot of boiling, salted water is all it needs.

"Alternatively, a minute in a covered skillet with a touch of salt and olive oil is quick and great, as well. When cooked this way, you can use it in salads, pasta dishes or pureed into a pesto."

Asparagus lends itself to all sorts of cutting skills.

"The options are endless -- shaved into ribbons with a vegetable peeler, cut into tiny segments on a bias, split lengthwise all the way up their 'bellies,' or intact, save for their (sometimes) woodsy ends," she says. "You can do intact spears wrapped in foil in the oven or on the grill -- again, at its most simple, with a bit of olive oil, salt and lemon zest."

Swanson, who lives in San Francisco -- California is the top producing state for asparagus, with 46 percent of the U.S. total -- says she never peels asparagus.

"The way I prepare it, (that) seems like a bothersome, fussy extra step," she says.

Consumers should keep in mind that attention at the supermarket will ensure a delicious bunch of stalks, she says.

"If the asparagus is lacking at your local store, pass. If it is rubbery, pass. Asparagus should stand tall and proud and give a satisfying snap when you go to break off the ends. I also look for the brightest green asparagus I can find, whether shopping for thick or thin stalks." Make sure the tips are closed, too.

Jane Dillner, co-owner of Dillner Family Farm in Gibsonia, reports that asparagus beds on the property are more than 25 years old.

"Asparagus is very hardy in this climate," she says. The farm, a member of the region's community-supported agriculture program -- it uses sustainable agriculture practices, too -- had to plant another bed last year that was three times the size of the first bed because of CSA demand.

"It will take three years to get a crop from the new bed," she says. "Asparagus is usually the first crop in the spring, but it can be held back by mulching it until mid-May, when I need it for the CSA members."

Like Culp and Swanson, her favorite "recipe" is elementary. "I do not have any fancy recipes," she says, "but love to cook fresh, tender asparagus in the microwave, because it only takes 5 to 7 minutes. I melt American cheese on the asparagus, and my kids love it."


Asparagus facts

• Five medium-size spears of asparagus contain 16 calories, very little sodium, no fat or cholesterol. A serving is a good source of a B vitamin called folate, a heart-health nutrient, and vitamin K, which aids in blood clotting after injuries.

• Asparagus also contains a substance called glutathione (glue-ta-THI-on), a "master antioxidant" that assists vitamins A and C (which are antioxidants themselves) to defend against free radicals. According to some studies, glutathione might help prevent certain cancers and offer protection against viruses.

• Purple Passion -- also referred to as viola -- is a purple variety of asparagus that turns green when cooked. It sometimes is sold at specialty food stores and farmers markets.

• Asparagus fields usually have a production life of 12 to 15 years, although some might yield crops for more than 20 years. The stalks are hand-harvested, which is labor-intensive. Harvesting can be done by snapping at or near ground level, which eliminates fiber in the spears, or cut with a special knife, leaving a little white on the butt end. Mature spears range from 5 to 10 inches. All-green asparagus is more perishable than stalks with white butts.

• Jumbo asparagus spears come from the same plant as any other size asparagus. The younger the plant, however, the greater the number of jumbos produced.

• Should you have asparagus growing on your property, the most important thing to do at harvest is to cool the spears rapidly and immediately to preserve quality and nutrients. Loss of moisture can be controlled by placing the butts on cold water or in contact with moisture-holding material. Loose tips commonly are caused by failing to cool asparagus from its field temperature -- if it makes it to the refrigerator from the garden. Freshly picked asparagus is great straight out of the ground.


Spicy Portobello and Asparagus Fettuccine

This recipe is adapted from "Dave's Dinners: A Fresh Approach to Home-Cooked Meals" by Dave Lieberman (Hyperion, $27.50). Lieberman hosts Food Network's "Good Deal" (9:30 a.m. Mondays), as well as "Dave Does" on foodnetwork.com. The latter is a 24/7 Web site featuring videos of Lieberman in a search for cool culinary trends. He also is the author of "Young & Hungry: Recipes for Cooking Fresh and Affordable Food for Everyone" (Hyperion, $22.95 paperback).

Total cooking time: 30 to 45 minutes

• 1 pound uncooked fettuccine

• Water

• Salt

• Extra-virgin olive oil

• 2 large portobello mushrooms, stems removed, peeled and sliced about { 1/2}-inch thick

• 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

• About 10 dashes crushed red pepper, optional

• 1 bunch asparagus, bottom quarter trimmed, cut into 2-inch pieces

• Parmesan, grana padano or pecorino Romano cheese, for shaving

In a large pot, cook the fettuccine in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and toss with olive oil to keep the pasta from sticking together.

Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Toss in the mushrooms, season with salt and saute over high heat, browning evenly. Remove the mushrooms from the oil and set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium; add the garlic and crushed red pepper, if using. Cook the garlic just a minute or so without browning it. Add the asparagus pieces and cook until they are bright green and slightly softened. Add the mushrooms back to the pan and toss together with the asparagus.

Season to taste with salt and toss with the pasta until heated through. Transfer to serving plates and top with the shaved cheese.

Makes 6 servings.


Grilled Fresh California Asparagus with Pancetta, Pepato Cheese and Herbs

Pepato cheese is romano cheese with peppercorns. If you cannot find this, use plain romano cheese. This recipe is from the California Asparagus Commission.

Total cooking time: 15 minutes, plus time for grill to heat

• 1 1/2 pounds jumbo or extra-large fresh asparagus, trimmed

• Olive oil, as needed

• 2 tablespoons grated pepato cheese (romano cheese with peppercorns) or plain romano

• 3 ounces thinly sliced pancetta; or 3 slices American bacon, cooked crisp, then crumbled

• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

• 1 tablespoon shredded fresh basil

• 1 tablespoon shredded fresh mint

Prepare a grill for medium-high direct heat. Generously coat the asparagus spears with olive oil and place the stalks on the grill, turning frequently, until the asparagus is lightly browned and tender-crisp, for about 6 minutes for extra-large and a minute or two more for jumbo.

Arrange on a warmed serving platter. Sprinkle with cheese, pancetta and herbs.

Makes 6 servings.


Northwest Asparagus Wild Rice Salad

If you have frozen cranberries, rinse them to start the thawing process and prepare the salad a few hours ahead, chilling it in the refrigerator. Or, use dried cranberries, cutting the amount by at least half, or to taste. A bottled salad dressing can be used, something like cranberry-ginger vinaigrette. This recipe is from the Washington Asparagus Commission.

Total cooking time: 1 hour

• 2 cups uncooked wild rice

• 3 cups thinly and diagonally sliced fresh asparagus

• 1 cup sliced smoked salmon (small chunks)

• 1 cup cranberries, rinsed

• 1 cup sliced red bell pepper

Dressing

• 1/4 cup white wine vinegar

• 1 tablespoon olive oil

• 1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

Cook the wild rice according to package directions. Rinse in cold water to stop the cooking process, then drain thoroughly. Combine the asparagus, salmon, cranberries, red bell pepper and cooked rice. Mix well.

Combine the Dressing ingredients. Toss the dressing with the salad.

Makes 4 servings.


Spring Minestrone with Brown Rice

This recipe is from "Super Natural Cooking: Five Ways to Incorporate Whole & Natural Ingredients into Your Cooking" by Heidi Swanson (Celestial Arts, $20 paperback), which has just been nominated for a James Beard Foundation award in the "Healthy Focus" category. Swanson writes that she turns to this recipe when she's in the mood for a light but nourishing soup. "The brown rice is substantial enough to make you feel full, and the asparagus and peas nicely balance the soup's flavor and texture."

Total cooking time: About 1 hour

• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

• 2 shallots, thinly sliced

• 1 clove garlic, minced

• 3/4 cup medium-grain uncooked brown basmati rice, rinsed and drained

• 6 cups vegetable stock

• 1 cup sugar snap or snow peas, trimmed and cut in half diagonally

• 8 spears asparagus, trimmed and diagonally sliced into 1-inch pieces

• 1/2 cup green peas, fresh or frozen

• Fine-grain sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, then add the shallots and garlic and saute for a couple of minutes, until soft. Add the rice and cook, stirring for 1 minute, then add the stock and bring to a boil. Cover, lower the heat and simmer until the rice is just tender, for 35 to 45 minutes.

Add the sugar snap peas, asparagus and green peas, and season with a few healthy pinches of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Simmer for another 2 or 3 minutes and serve immediately to make sure the vegetables stay crisp and bright.

Makes 4 servings.

Variations: For an Asian-inspired soup, add a couple handfuls of edamame (fresh or frozen soybeans) in place of the peas and finish with the drizzle of toasted sesame oil. Or, substitute shelled fresh fava beans for the peas and finish with a bit of shaved parmesan, grated lemon zest and shredded basil for a more intensely Italian flair.


Straw and Hay Fettuccine Tangle with Spring Asparagus Puree

The asparagus and spinach puree, rich in folate, can be made ahead of time. Turn it into a jar, cover the top with a layer of olive oil, cover and refrigerate. You also can use it slathered on grilled vegetable panini, as a swirl in a simple potato soup or as a pizza sauce. The recipe is from "Super Natural Cooking" by Heidi Swanson (Celestial Arts, $20 paperback).

Total cooking time: About 1 hour

• Water

• 4 ounces dried spinach fettuccine, or 6 ounces fresh

• 4 ounces dried egg fettuccine, or 6 ounces fresh

• Fine-grain sea salt

Spring Asparagus Puree

• 1 bunch asparagus spears, trimmed and halved crosswise

• 3 handfuls fresh baby spinach leaves

• 2 cloves garlic

• 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus more for topping

• 1 cup toasted pine nuts, divided

• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for topping

• Juice of 1/2 lemon

Bring 2 pots of water to a rolling boil, one large and one medium-size. You'll use the large one to cook the pasta and the medium one to blanch the asparagus.

For the asparagus puree:

Salt the asparagus water to taste and drop the spears into the pot. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes, or until the spears are bright green and barely tender. Drain and transfer to a food processor (preferably) or a blender. Add the spinach, garlic, 1 cup parmesan and 3/4 cup pine nuts.

Puree, and with the motor running, drizzle in the 1/4 cup olive oil until a paste forms. It should be the loose consistency of a pesto; if too thick, thin it with a bit of the pasta water. Add the lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon salt, then taste and adjust the seasoning.

Salt the pasta water well and cook the pasta until just tender; you'll need less time for fresh pasta, more for dried. Drain and toss immediately with 1 cup of the asparagus puree, stirring in more afterward depending on how heavily coated you like your pasta.

Serve sprinkled with the remaining 1/4 cup pine nuts, a dusting of parmesan and a quick drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.


Risotto with Green and White Asparagus

This recipe is from "Two Meatballs in the Italian Kitchen" by Pino Luongo and Mark Strausman (Artisan, $35). These two chefs -- buddies and business partners for more than 20 years -- decided to write a cookbook about the simple Italian food they love, throwing in advice, experience and a bit of controversy about the "right" way to prepare a dish. Black truffle puree can be purchased at specialty food stores.

• 4 to 5 cups chicken stock or low-sodium canned organic chicken broth

• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

• 1 medium-size white onion, minced

• 1 pound green asparagus, woody ends removed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

• 1 pound white asparagus, woody ends removed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

• 2 cups uncooked arborio rice

• 1 cup dry white wine

• 1 tablespoon black truffle puree, optional

• 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley

Total cooking time: 60 to 90 minutes

Pour the chicken stock into a 2 1/2- to 3-quart saucepan and bring to a simmer. Keep warm over low heat.

Place a heavy-bottomed 5- to 6-quart pot over medium heat, and when it is hot, add 1 tablespoon butter. When the butter foams, add the onion and asparagus, mix well, using a wooden spoon, and saute until softened, for 5 to 7 minutes. Add the rice and stir until all the grains are coated with butter, for about 2 minutes.

Gradually add the wine, stirring constantly. When the rice has absorbed most of the wine, add 1/2 cup broth and simmer, stirring, until it has been absorbed. Continue adding stock 1/2 cup at a time and stirring until it has been absorbed. Continue adding stock 1/2 cup at a time and stirring until all the stock has been absorbed and the rice is al dente, for about 18 minutes.

Stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, the truffle puree if using, and the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Add salt and pepper, stir in the parsley and serve immediately.

Makes 4 main-course servings or 6 appetizer servings.


Baked Asparagus with Parmigiano-Reggiano and Balsamic Vinegar

Real balsamic vinegar, from Modena, Italy, is tremendously flavorful but expensive -- use an eye dropper instead of teaspoons or tablespoons. To improve the taste of supermarket balsamic, cook it down to a syrupy consistency, as explained in this recipe from "Two Meatballs in the Italian Kitchen" by Pino Luongo and Mark Strausman (Artisan, $35).

Total cooking time: About 45 minutes

• 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

• Water

• 1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

• 2 bunches (about 2 pounds) asparagus

• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

• 1 cup (4 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the vinegar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, swirling the pan occasionally, until reduced by half, for about 15 minutes. Set aside.

Bring a 6- to 8-quart pot of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the asparagus and blanch until barely tender, for about 1 minute. Drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. Pat dry, using paper towels.

Place the asparagus in one layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil and sprinkle with the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Transfer to the oven and bake until the cheese is melted and the asparagus is hot, for 5 minutes.

Use a spatula to transfer the asparagus to a platter. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the reduced balsamic vinegar and the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Serve immediately, with the extra balsamic vinegar on the side.

Makes 4 servings.

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