As Alfred, Lord Tennyson, once wrote, “In spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” But for this old woman, spring always brings thoughts of . . . asparagus.
Although this versatile vegetable has been on grocers’ shelves for most of the winter, it is now fresher and priced more reasonably. So, it’s time to bring on the delicate green shoots that can be used in a multitude of ways to turn even the most pedestrian dishes into near poetry.
If you like your vegetables with a touch of crunch, as I do, the simplest way to prepare them is to snap off the tough bottoms, wash well to remove any lingering sand, and then microwave briefly in a shallow covered pan until the stalks are heated through, but still bright green. You don’t need any additional water, as the shoots will exude their own juice.
The timing will depend on your microwave, and the size of the portion. It’s a good idea to check them every minute or two, since you can always cook them longer, but you can’t uncook them. When they are at your preferred state of doneness, add salt, pepper, butter and/or lemon juice to taste. A dollop of mayonnaise can also be delicious.
Oven and grill
For the more adventurous palate, roasted asparagus is almost as easy to prepare, but looks and tastes as if you’ve been slaving away for hours. In this case, it’s better to select thicker stalks that can stand up to more aggressive heating without turning to mush.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees before you begin preparing the asparagus. As in the previous recipe, snap off the fibrous bottoms, wash, blot the remaining stalks dry and place in a single layer in an oven-safe pan. Add a liberal splash of olive oil, and roll the stalks around to coat them well. Add salt, pepper and your favorite fresh or dried herbs. Minced garlic, rosemary and thyme go well together, as do dill and lemon juice.
About 15 minutes before serving, put the asparagus in the preheated oven and roast until sizzling. Carefully remove the pan from the oven — it’s SCREAMING hot at this point — and gently shake the stalks to distribute the heat. Return to the oven until asparagus is slightly brown and crunchy on the bottom. Serve as is, or toss with cooked pasta or rice. It’s also delicious mixed into macaroni and cheese. Leftovers — if there are any — are a tasty addition to omelettes, frittatas or almost any egg dish.
Asparagus can also be roasted on the barbecue grill, if you have a wire basket. Use the same method as in the oven, but keep the stalks moving to prevent burning.
Another easy-to-prepare but almost sinfully satisfying spring dish is asparagus soup. Use the skinniest available stalks for this recipe, snap off the bottoms, and wash well. At this point, cut off the tops, microwave them briefly until just cooked through, and reserve for later. Cut the rest of the stalks into smaller pieces, and sauté gently in a small amount of butter or olive oil with a shallot or two until softened, but not browned. Add milk or cream to the pan to cover the vegetables by an inch or two — I use skim milk, but do as your conscience dictates — and simmer gently until very tender. Stir frequently, and don’t let the mixture come to a boil.
When the stalks are tender, purée with a food processor, food mill, immersion blender or whatever your favorite implement of destruction is. Return to the pan, add back the reserved tops, thin with more milk if necessary, and season with salt and pepper to taste. I don’t generally use much salt in cooking, but this dish seems to need quite a bit.
Serve the soup with fresh bread and butter, or croutons. My husband likes to add Parmesan cheese, but that seems like an unnecessary indulgence.
So celebrate the spring with a fresh taste. And if your young man’s fancy IS turning to thoughts of love, serve him an elegant dinner that includes asparagus. In some cultures, it’s thought of as an aphrodisiac. Let us know if it works.
“In & Out of the Kitchen,” a wide-ranging column about cooking, eating and buying food, is written by various Gazette staffers. For more food stories, check out the Food Forum blog at www.dailygazette.com.