So much about asparagus says 'spring' – you can just taste it

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D

My asparagus convalescence – from a childhood spent eating the mushy, canned stuff – began late in my adolescence, when my mother boiled fresh spears, then covered them with homemade hollandaise.

The healing was complete years later, when I tasted grilled asparagus. Charred, tender yet crisp, it captured a flavor that, if I were in charge of the vegetable's PR, I might call "Springtime's Essence." Its delicacy was deepened by a turn over the fire, giving its natural winsomeness a kind of side-dish gravitas.

To my mind, everything about spring is epitomized by asparagus. As is frequently the case with converts, I have become a bit militant on the subject. To me, if you don't care for grilled asparagus, you don't like grilling and you don't like asparagus.

The two were made for each other. Boiling, steaming, roasting – none of those methods complement the vegetable's flavor like a wood or charcoal flame. This is the time of year when asparagus is at its best, and there is no better way of cooking it than putting the green spears on the grill and charring them. It's a taste of spring that foreshadows summer.

One question that attends the grilling of asparagus is the same one that bedevils other forms of asparagus cooking: Thick or thin, which is better?

For a long time, I simply chose whatever was at the store. Then I read that a skinny stalk packed more asparagus punch than a fat one, with a texture that is generally less woody. So I selected only the most anorexic spears I could find.

In due time, consuming the baseball-bat-size things served at steak restaurants upended my skinny-asparagus fetish. If those could be as good as they were (and usually they weren't even grilled), maybe everything I thought I knew was wrong.

And maybe it is. But I have returned to my earlier, uninformed strategy: I choose whatever looks good.

That said, slender stalks can burn easily, turning what you hoped would be a nicely charred vegetable into an asparagus crisp. Fat shoots tend to require so much time on the grill to reach tenderness that their outsides can turn soft. Medium-size asparagus, I've found, takes well to charring while remaining simultaneously crisp and tender.

A bigger factor than size is freshness. If the asparagus at hand is limp or its spear ends flake easily or any part of the stalk is wrinkled, I change dinner plans and choose a different vegetable.

Depending on my mood, I might get out the vegetable peeler. Peeling the stalk reveals a pretty, pale green that can seem almost translucent. I cannot vouch for a significant difference in flavor (although I do think it becomes less "field" and more "stream," if that makes sense).

But sometimes I just prefer that clean, stripped look.

The versatility of asparagus is yet another of its many virtues. I will never forget an asparagus risotto my wife and I enjoyed in northern Italy, at once rich, light and bursting with the flavor of springtime. Grilling the asparagus enhanced my attempt to replicate the dish at home.

I go back and forth about cooking asparagus in a grill basket. Generally, I don't, because I feel that grilling directly on the grate gives the stalks a uniform char. But sometimes I do, perhaps because I may be in a pinch for dinner and I don't want to risk having any spears falling into the fire.

I also love an asparagus soup as a starter to a meal that moves on to other springtime glories, such as lamb. In addition to grilling the stalks, I briefly smoke them to lend the soup a beguiling flavor note that adds complexity to the sprightly springtime taste.

But I most enjoy grilled asparagus, I think, with a simple drizzle of good extra-virgin olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a grind of black pepper. The problem is, I will then eat one stalk after the other, like potato chips. If I'm not careful, there won't be any left for dinner.

I suppose, though, that my obsession can be seen as a form of recovery.


About asparagus

• Asparagus is a low- calorie food (1 cup has 27 calories) that provides many health benefits. In addition to 3 grams of protein and fiber per serving, it is packed with powerful antioxidants including vitamins A, C and K.

• Make sure the spears are bright green, firm, odorless and dry. They should have tightly closed tips. You want to avoid wilted, brittle or limp stalks with fanned tips. You might also find the purple or white variety of asparagus at the farmers market. Note: The purple asparagus will turn green when cooked.

• Asparagus can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four days. To prevent the spears from dehydrating, wrap the ends of the stalks with a wet paper towel and place them in a plastic bag. Another option is to cut off about an inch from the stalks and place them in 2 inches of water with the tips upright, covered with a plastic bag. The woody ends of the stalks can be frozen and saved for soup.


STOCKTON ASPARAGUS FESTIVAL

What: The green spears will be celebrated with food, wine and contests, plus entertainment, rides, dog acrobatics and a sea lion encounter.

When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday

Where: Downtown Stockton

Tickets: $13 general, $8 students and seniors, free for children 12 and under with paying adult. Parking is $10 or, on Saturday and Sunday, take the AsparaBus ($5) from Delta College.

More information: asparagusfest.com


Recipe: Blistered asparagus


Recipe: Spring gnocchi with asparagus


Recipe: Raw asparagus mushroom and parsley salad


Recipes: Almond-crusted-bake-fried asparagus

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Read more articles by Jim Shahin



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