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THE SPEARS OF SPRING // asparagus

If you taste spring in the crunch of fresh green asparagus, you're onto something.

That tender green spear is not just a symbol of the season of rejuvenation, it is literally new life. Asparagus spears are so young they may have poked their heads out of the ground and shot up to 8 or 9 inches tall in less than 24 hours before a picker's long knife reaches down to cut it for your table.

The crisp freshness is why many asparagus lovers prefer it in its purest state, dressed with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon.

While the arrival of fresh asparagus _ or affordable prices _ in the produce section this month may seem sudden to shoppers, its growth in the field is more remarkable. Springing up almost overnight, rarely taking more than three days to reach full size, asparagus may be the fastest vegetable on _ or actually under _ the earth.

Asparagus can be an overnight sensation, like mushrooms in a dark corner of the woods or those daffodils you didn't notice yesterday. Its shoots are not wispy; its first growth is tall, straight and sturdy.

"If you could physically lie down on an asparagus field for 24 hours, you would be 6 to 7 inches off the ground," brags Bill DePaoli, spokesman for the commission that represents the farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley, where 75 percent of the U.S. crop grows.

The instant burst of speedy growth, however, is an illusion of nature; ask any gardener who has tried asparagus at home. The plant is a perennial, like others in the lily family, and it takes at least two years to get a bed producing. The plant is a large rhizome called a crown that grows underground until the temperatures warm up in March, ideally to 90 degrees in the daytime. Then the stalks we eat shoot up.

The crown continues to send up fresh shoots until the heat of late May and early June, when growers stop cutting and the stalks flower and leaf out as ferns (not quite the same as the asparagus fern at your house) that can reach 5 feet in height.

Growth is the same, by the way, for spears thick and thin, white and green. Fatter asparagus are not old and slow. They come from newer growth; smaller spears from the old and tired. While American taste is for pencil-thin spears, Europeans and many gourmets prefer bigger stalks; the problem is that the fatter spears are best closest to the source and dehydrate faster in shipping and produce sections. For those who demand fresh jumbos, Mr. Spear ships them overnight at three pounds for $24.95; call (800) 677-7327. The white asparagus so popular in Europe is produced when shoots are kept in the dark, under peaty soil or hay. Regardless of size and color, buy only asparagus with tight, firm heads.

The freshness of asparagus emerging from the ground is what first caught our eyes and our palates more than 2,000 years ago _ and why the Greeks named it for shooting. It made asparagus a springtime treat for those who found it in the wild from Spain to Germany and a luxurious staple on the tables of royalty and gourmets. The less fortunate of us came to know asparagus canned or frozen, which children often rated the yuckiest of all vegetables.

Modern times have made fresh asparagus far more popular and available. This spring, at prices lower than those for broccoli and many other vegetables, asparagus is inexpensive enough to be appreciated as a convenience food, not a luxury.

It comes virtually ready to use; bend the stalk, and it breaks naturally where the spear is too woody. Cooking is quick: it takes only 3 to 8 minutes _ without a microwave.

Fans argue about which cooking method is preferred, but best techniques are simple. Although there are tall, narrow cookers especially for asparagus, you can get the same results by tying spears in a bundle and standing it up in shallow water in a covered pot. Simpler yet, cook asparagus in a single layer in a skillet with just enough water to cover; boil in a pot; saute in olive oil; or put them on the grill. Cook only until they are bright green and as crisp or tender as you like.

Don't let the old traditions of hollandaise and heavy cream and cheese sauces intimidate you. Melted butter with parsley, chives or licorice-tasting herbs such as tarragon are easier; sour cream and yogurt more healthful. Lemon and orange juice or zest, fruit-based vinegars, or soy sauce with sesame seeds are quick and good.

Asparagus combines easily, chilled in salads (especially with artichokes), sauteed with mushrooms, mixed with seafood or added to pasta and stir-fries. Its most popular partner is the egg, in omelets, souffles and quiches, or just a fried egg atop a pile of asparagus.

Pureed, asparagus makes good quick soups and sauces; some cooks use the cooking water in other dishes.

Old-timers in asparagus country drank the leftover water, for asparagus was long fabled for medicinal and even aphrodisiac effects. Modern analysis confirms that it is a natural diuretic ), a good source of folic acid, thiamin, vitamin C, potassium and fiber.

Here are some recipes to try with asparagus:

Stir-Fried Scallops and Asparagus Teriyaki

1{ pounds sea scallops

1 cup Teriyaki Sauce

1 tablespoon peanut oil

12 ounces asparagus, tough ends trimmed, sliced on the diagonal into 2-inch pieces

1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives, for garnish

Place the scallops in a small bowl, add the teriyaki sauce and toss well. Marinate for 1 hour at room temperature.

Heat the peanut oil in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Drain the scallops, reserving { cup of the marinade. Add the scallops to the skillet in small batches and cook about 1{ minutes per side until cooked through. Remove to a plate and keep warm.

Add the asparagus to the pan and cook for 3 minutes over medium-high heat, shaking the pan constantly. Remove the asparagus to the plate with the scallops.

Pour the reserved marinade into the skillet and cook over high heat until reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Return the scallops and asparagus to the skillet and coat well with the sauce. Garnish with the chives. Serve immediately. Serves 6.

Note: If you're able to find lavender chive blossoms, drape them over the scallops for an Asian flourish. Serve this dish with rice or pasta flavored with lemon.

Source: Sheila Lukins All Around the World Cookbook.

Asparagus Frittata

2 yellow onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1{ pounds cooked asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 cup dry bread crumbs

1{ cups grated Parmesan cheese

1\ cups olive oil

1 cup chopped fresh parsley

1{ teaspoon Italian seasoning

2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoon pepper

10 large eggs

Saute onions and garlic in olive oil until tender. Add asparagus, bread crumbs, cheese, parsley, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper and cook together a bit. Beat eggs and add to mixture. Pour into 9-by-13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.

May be served either hot or cold. Cut into small squares. This may be frozen.

Source: The Original Stockton Asparagus Festival Cookbook, Celestial Arts, Berkeley, Calif.

Risotto with Asparagus

3 tablespoons butter

{ medium onion, chopped fine

2 pounds asparagus, cleaned and trimmed, cut in 2-inch pieces

1 cups rice

5{-6 cups chicken broth, boiling

Salt to taste

1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley

\ cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons butter

Melt butter in heavy saucepan and add chopped onion. Saute for 3 minutes, then add asparagus. Continue to stir, cooking for another 2 minutes. Add rice. Continue stirring. Begin pouring boiling chicken broth into mixture, a little at a time, stirring until all broth is used. Cook about 15 minutes or until rice is cooked.

Add salt, parsley, grated cheese and butter. Toss gently and serve immediately. Serves 6-8.

Source: The Original Stockton Asparagus Festival Cookbook, Celestial Arts, Berkeley, Calif.

Asparagus-Parmesan Cheese Puffs

pound asparagus spears

} cup milk

5 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

} cup flour

{ teaspoon salt

\ teaspoon cayenne pepper

3 eggs, room temperature

} cup freshly grated Parmesan

{ cup shredded Gruyere cheese

Snap off tough ends of asparagus and discard. Cut spears on the diagonal into \-inch pieces. Simmer in boiling salted water until just tender, about 1 minute. Drain and set aside.

In a heavy saucepan, combine milk and butter and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, sift flour, salt and cayenne pepper into a bowl. As soon as milk reaches a boil and butter has melted, remove from heat and add flour mixture all at once. Using a wooden spoon, beat vigorously until the mixture thickens and pulls away from sides of the pan, about 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Let cool for 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly butter the paper.

Add asparagus, Parmesan and Gruyere to the cooled dough and stir to mix well. Using a teaspoon, scoop up rounded spoonfuls of the dough and place on baking sheets, about 1 inch apart. Bake until golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Remove from oven and, using a spatula, transfer to a warmed serving dish. Serve immediately. Makes 36 puffs, serving 6.

Source: Spring, by Joanne Weir (TimeLife Books, 1997, $21.95)

Spring Risotto with Asparagus and Bay Scallops

6-8 cups chicken broth

3 tablespoons butter

1 red or yellow onion, finely chopped

1 pound thin asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

{ pound bay scallops, cleaned of sand but not rinsed

1{ cups arborio rice

{ cup dry white wine

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons heavy cream

{ cup freshly grated Parmesan

Heat broth to boiling. In a separate heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter. Add the onion and cook over low heat until onion is soft, about 5 minutes. While onion is cooking, bring 2 inches of water to a boil in a skillet and cook asparagus 2-3 minutes. Remove, drain and keep warm. Poach scallops in lightly salted water at a simmer for 1 minute. Remove, drain and keep warm.

Add the rice to the onion and stir until rice is coated with butter and opaque, about 3 minutes. Add the wine to the rice and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until liquid is absorbed. Add { cup of the hot broth or just enough to cover the rice; continue stirring and cook until it is absorbed. Continue to add broth { cup at a time, stirring after each addition until absorbed, until rice is tender, 20-25 minutes. The grains will be a little firm in the center but softer on the outside.

When rice is done, season to taste with salt and pepper then stir in cream and cheese and about cup of the broth so the risotto is creamy and light. Stir in the warm asparagus and scallops just before serving. Serves 4-6.

Source: Quick Cuisine, Ann Clark, (Plume/Penguin, 1995, $13.95)

Spinach and Asparagus Salad

{ pound fresh asparagus

4 cups fresh spinach leaves

8 slices French baguette

1 large clove garlic, halved

Dressing:

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons defatted chicken stock

2 teaspoons canola oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cut off the woody ends of the asparagus. Cut into 2-inch pieces. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add asparagus and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain and refresh under cold water.

Wash spinach leaves and tear into bite-size pieces. Generously rub both sides of sliced bread with cut side of garlic clove. Toast bread until just golden brown. Cut into small squares.

For dressing, whisk lemon juice and mustard together in a salad bowl. Add chicken stock and mix well. Add oil, salt and pepper. Whisk dressing until smooth. Add spinach, asparagus and croutons. Toss well.

Source: Dinner in Minutes: Memorable Meals for Busy Cooks by Linda Gassenheimer, Chapters Publishing Ltd.

Asparagus tips

Snap bottoms and cook quickly in steamer, skillet or microwave or on grill.

Use soon, ideally the day you buy it.

Store fresh asparagus like parsley, with bottoms of stalks in water or wet paper towel and tops covered.

Sauce simply with fresh lemon, parmesan cheese, olive oil with black pepper or butter and nutmeg.

Skip Hollandaise and use mayo, sour cream or yogurt spiked with orange zest, anchovy paste, mustard or curry powder.

Try lightly cooked asparagus in salads, pastas, stir-fries and soups.

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