Few vegetables are as closely identified with the arrival of spring as asparagus.
The tentative beginnings of mild weather to always seem coincide with the arrival of the first tender shoots of asparagus.
Like spring along the Gulf Coast, asparagus season never lasts long enough. Most asparagus plants only produce spears for four to eight weeks, and the fresh green spears now available in most produce departments will soon, like days with temperatures in the 60s, soon be a pleasant memory.
During that brief growing season, however, asparagus can make an appearance any time from breakfast through dinner, including the cocktail
hour. When blanched, still-crisp asparagus can stand up to a dip or be wrapped in bacon or prosciutto and grilled.
For those of us whose first introduction to asparagus came from a can and involved limp, spaghetti-like strands of gray-green mush, the vivid color and taste of flash-cooked asparagus is a revelation.
Because the first shoots of asparagus are so delicate, it’s easy to overcook them. Steaming wet asparagus spears in the microwave for just a minute or two will produce tender but not mushy stalks.
In addition to steaming in the microwave, asparagus can be roasted in the oven in a spoonful of olive oil, resulting in a caramelized outer layer and a subtly nutty flavor.
Roasting and steaming not only produce a better texture than boiling in water, but also preserve more of the vegetable’s nutrients, which include healthy doses of vitamins A, C, E and K.
One reason that asparagus often ends up overcooked is that people are trying to avoid woody, fibrous stalks. Avoiding woody stalks begins not in the kitchen but by selecting the best stalks, and it may not be the ones cooks expect.
Many people assume that big spears of asparagus, which may be thicker in diameter than a man’s finger, are going to be tough and fibrous.
According to plant scientists at Texas A&M University, however, small-diameter spears contain a higher percentage of fiber cells and are going to be tougher than large-diameter spears. The larger spears will require a slightly longer cooking time because of their greater volume.
The Aggie experts also said the fiber in asparagus becomes more pronounced as the spears lose water once they are harvested, so it’s important to select stalks that have had the cut ends kept moist, either in water or on ice. Once purchased, keeping the cut ends wrapped tightly in plastic or resting on a damp paper towel will help to prevent woody, fibrous stalks.
Even with these precautions, asparagus only stays fresh and at its best for a few days. Fortunately, there are many ways to serve it in salads, stir fries and egg dishes.
Combining it with one of the season’s other highly-anticipated crops in a strawberry asparagus salad makes for a double celebration of the season.
Asparagus also combines well with tomatoes, mushrooms and citrus. A splash of balsamic vinegar pairs with it very well, both in salads or sprinkled over roasted spears.
2 bunches fresh asparagus, trimmed
1⁄2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Toss the asparagus with oil on a baking sheet with sides or in a large roasting pan. Spread the asparagus in a single layer and season with salt and pepper.
Roast the asparagus uncovered for 15 to 25 minutes, or until tender. Serve hot or at room temperature.
(SOURCE: Recipe courtesy Eating Well magazine)
1 cup small fresh asparagus pieces
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1⁄2 cup sliced green onions
1⁄2 cup tomatoes, diced
1⁄4 cup water
1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
1⁄2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella or cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Coat a 10-inch nonstick skillet with ovenproof handle with cooking spray; heat over medium-high heat until hot. Add the asparagus, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes; sauté until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Beat the eggs, water and Italian seasoning in medium bowl until blended. Stir in the cheese; pour over the mixture in the skillet. Cook on the stovetop over medium heat until eggs are set at edges, 5 to 8 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Bake the in oven until the top is lightly browned, eggs are completely set and no visible liquid egg remains, 8 to 10 minutes. Cut into wedges.
(SOURCE: Recipe courtesy American Egg Board)
Strawberry Asparagus Salad
1⁄2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1⁄2 teaspoon raw, local honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1⁄2 cup oil extra-virgin olive oil oil
8 cups baby spinach
1 cup fresh strawberries, sliced
1⁄2 pound fresh asparagus, sliced on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces
1⁄2 cup crumbled goat cheese
1 teaspoon oil extra-virgin olive oil oil
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Prepare the balsamic vinaigrette by whisking balsamic vinegar, honey, Dijon mustard and olive oil together. Set aside.
Place sliced asparagus on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Toss the spinach with the vinaigrette. Divide evenly among four plates, top with strawberries, asparagus and goat cheese.
Drizzle the remaining dressing over the top and serve.
(SOURCE: Recipe from For the Love of Fiber, by Kristin Boucher)