Pick of the Month, April ‘08

This could be a short one. I’m realizing that, of late, my Pick posts have run long, due to the sales pitch I feel is required to convince a minority of readers that the ingredient of discussion is worthy of their grocery cart. But this month, I’m going with a sure-fire winner. A sexy veggie, if you will. Such a classic, it’s hard to resist; in our neck of the woods, when the azaleas start to bloom, you’re bound to walk into your local market and find a display of asparagus, front and center, bidding your menu’s attention.

What’s not to like? Well, there is that one thing. We might as well address the fact that about half the population will notice a certain off-odor to their urine after eating asparagus. (If you didn’t know this tidbit of trivia, you can safely consider yourself in the non-odor-noticing part of humanity. If you’ve noticed it, but have never mentioned the issue in public, you can rest assured that it is perfectly harmless, and has a genetic component, though it is debated whether the gene effects the way our bodies breakdown the asparagus or simply our ability to smell certain sulfurs.)

That one negative trait aside, let’s wax on about how wonderful asparagus is in all its other ways. First, visually: it’s a beautifully presented dish, all alone on a plate. It is altogether unique in texture and flavor, and though somewhat strong in both, tends to please a majority of people. It is also a “super green veggie,” meaning it’s really, really good for you. But the thing I like the most about asparagus is that it speaks Spring, in a similar manner as how the tomato speaks Summer. It is a delicious component of such equinox classics as Pasta Primavera or a Spring Vegetable Risotto (I made the version from the latest Cook’s Illustrated last week, and it was one of my all-time-favorite homemade risottos). Asparagus signifies a returning of our diets to things fresh, crisp, and green, after a long winter of stewed, cooked-down, and canned.

Last spring, I discovered a recipe from The Cook’s Bible, for Roasted Asparagus. I cooked my asparagus this way all season; it was incredibly easy and equally as delicious. One of the best attributes of this preparation was that I could make it in my Cuisinart Toaster/Convection Oven, meaning I didn’t have to heat up my large gas oven (and therefore my entire kitchen) during the warmer months. Like most roasting preparations, this method intensifies the flavor in a way unlike any other recipe I’ve found:

  • For a pound of asparagus, heat your oven to 400º. Wash your asparagus, and snap off the tough ends (the spears will naturally break at the point where the toughness turns tender). Place the spears in a shallow roasting pan, and brush with olive oil (or drizzle, then gently toss to coat). Sprinkle with salt to taste, and roast for about 10 minutes. Add ground pepper to taste, and serve.

I still plan to roast my asparagus this way more than once in the coming months. But I have also found a new way to prepare and serve it, discovered a few weeks ago as I perused through my new copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (the classic cookbook that thrust Julia Child into the American culinary spotlight). I took this version to a cookout, and it is safe to say that the plate was as good as licked clean. It is also a more practical preparation if you don’t have a small oven for roasting, and aren’t in the mood to turn on your oven on a day when the temps reach above 90º. You simply:

  • Prepare your asparagus (Julia recommends peeling the tough ends rather than snapping them, to save more of the vegetable), and tie the bunch together, using two pieces of kitchen twine (keep out one spear to taste for doneness). Boil a large pot of water (a large dutch oven or stockpot), and add about a tablespoon of salt. Drop the asparagus bunch and test spear into the boiling water, and bring the water back to a boil as quickly as possible. Boil for about 7-10 minutes, or until the asparagus is bright green, and the test spear is crisp-tender. Remove the bunch, untie, and spread out on a kitchen towel to cool.
  • As the asparagus cools, prepare a classic French Vinaigrette (3 Tbsp good olive oil, 1 Tbsp white wine vinegar, 1 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice, 1/2 tsp dijon mustard, a Tbsp or so of fresh herbs, and salt/pepper to taste; shake all ingredients in a tightly-closed jar, until emulsion forms). When the asparagus has cooled to room temperature, arrange on a platter, and dress lightly with the vinaigrette.

If you have any vinaigrette leftover, save it to dress your next salad. Or, for that matter, chop up any remaining asparagus spears for the same purpose. The thing about asparagus is that it’s just not very cheap for very long; so get it while the gettin’s good, and use every last spear in a manner worthy of its pointy, green goodness.

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