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You can't grill too much asparagus

(ran TP, ST editions)

A couple of summers ago, my husband and our neighbor fired up the grill for one of those carnivorous delights of rare flank steak and barbecued chicken breasts.

They also took charge of one of the vegetables _ pencil-thin fresh asparagus. Why bother cranking up the stove to steam asparagus when the grill is smoking? they reasoned.

As Bob and Frank did their "we are men; we cook with fire" routine, Ellen and I fixed a green salad, sliced bread, opened wine and set the table. In retrospect, we should have kept an eye on the backyard chefs.

Those 2 pounds of asparagus never made it to the table. The tender, smoky-flavored stalks, doused in extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt before grilling, were just too good and the cooks too weak to abstain.

As they finished grilling the meat, they nibbled on the asparagus _ and nibbled until the stalks were history. Since then, when we decide to grill asparagus, I insist on serving the stalks as a first course.

Preparing the stalks for the grill is simple, and the size of the stalk _ slim or fat _ is up to the cook's preference. When deciding how much to buy, figure out how many stalks you usually prepare per guest, then double it.

Snap off the tough end of each stalk, rinse the asparagus in cold water and pat dry. Coat the stalks in olive oil (extra virgin adds more flavor, but any kind of olive oil is fine) and sprinkle with coarse salt. Adjust a gas grill to medium heat or allow a charcoal fire to burn to medium temperature. To judge when charcoal briquettes are at medium heat, you should be able to hold your hand above the hot coals for 4 seconds.

Lay the stalks perpendicular to the openings of the grate or use a vegetable grill pan, which prevents vegetables from falling through the grate. With tongs, roll the stalks until all sides show golden-brown marks. Cooking is 8 to 10 minutes for thin stalks and up to 15 minutes for the thick ones. Remove with tongs and enjoy hot or at room temperature.

Asparagus cooked this way is a fine addition to a platter of other seasonal grilled veggies or a colorful topping to a white pizza. If there are leftovers _ and that's highly unlikely _ chill them and add to sandwiches or salads.

This is also the season to eat one's fill of sweet Vidalia onions, and grilling tends to enhance their sweetness. Grilling sliced onions takes a bit of practice. A slip of the tongs or spatula, and the coals claim the prize. A vegetable grate removes that worry, although a pan made from aluminum foil also does the trick.

To make such a pan, tear off a piece of foil twice the size of a 9-inch square or 9- by 13-inch pan, depending on the amount of onions. Fold the foil in half lengthwise to make a double thickness, then mold it to the bottom of the pan. Remove the pan, fold over the edges of the foil and put the foil pan on the grill.

Whether you tempt fate by using just the grill grate or take the easy way out with a foil pan, slice Vidalias about 1 inch thick, but do not separate the rings. Like the asparagus, the onions should receive a coating of good oil.

Grill onions until crisp-tender, 4 to 5 minutes on each side.

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