Daffodils and jonquils are nodding their heads along with gardeners, saying yes to spring.
But for cooks, especially vegetable lovers, asparagus is the harbinger of warm weather, making its appearance when soil temperatures reach 50 degrees.
Asparagus is one of only two perennial vegetables; the other is rhubarb. Many gardeners will tell you that once you put asparagus in the ground, you'll never get rid of it. I once had a farmer tell me he took a stick of dynamite to his old asparagus patch just to get rid of it.
A bit dramatic, since experts say the plant is most productive for, at the most, 15 years.
Given that asparagus available year-round at supermarkets, you may not know to look for locally grown asparagus in the upcoming weeks. Once it starts to poke its spears out of the ground, the harvest can last up to six weeks, depending on air temperature. And then it's gone. My suggestion for where to buy it: It's possible there might be some roadside stands, but also check smaller grocers, such as the Farmer's Market stores and Main Street Market, all in Belleville.
Eating locally grown asparagus is like eating a peach from a nearby orchard: The difference in taste and quality is pretty remarkable compared to what is shipped to the Midwest.
There are many healthful ways to prepare asparagus: Roasted, grilled, sauteed, steamed, blanched or even as a soup. (See tips and recipes here and on Page CX.) The simplest way? Line up a trimmed row on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle a bit of olive oil on top and bake at 400 degrees (or grill) until tender. Then add lemon juice, black pepper and serve.
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 your local farmers market or grocer. Note: The purple asparagus will turn green when cooked. The white variety is grown in a way that prevents the development of chlorophyll, which is what gives the green variety its color.
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 two inches of water with the tips upright, covered with a plastic bag. The woody ends of the stalks can be frozen and saved for asparagus soup.
Many asparagus soup recipes call for cream, but this one uses broth. Add some cream if that's your preference. Make the soup the day it will be used, or the green color gets quite dark. Use a nonreactive pan (not aluminum) for the soup preparation. It should have a stainless or ceramic interior.
1 large onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon butter
2 pounds (2 bundles) fresh asparagus
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed, about 2 cups
About 5 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
5 cups vegetable stock or chicken broth
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and white pepper
Sour cream, for garnish
In a soup pot, saute onion in butter until translucent; do not brown.
Break off woody ends of asparagus and discard. Cut off tips of asparagus and reserve. Cut remaining asparagus in 2-inch pieces. Add asparagus, potatoes, parsley, stock and lemon juice to the pot with onion. Simmer until vegetables are cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Let broth cool slightly. Puree the soup in either a food mill, food processor or blender. (Unless it's an immersion blender, fill a blender less than half full or it will "explode" when the hot liquid is pureed.)
If you prefer the soup completely smooth, put it through a fine strainer; however, a few small bits of vegetable in the puree add a nice texture. Return the puree to the pot to rewarm; season to taste with salt and pepper.
For garnish, slice the reserved asparagus tips in half lengthwise (this makes them lighter so they won't sink into the soup). Drop the asparagus tips in a pot of boiling water for 11/2 minutes or until just tender. Drain. (This step can be done in advance.)
To serve, ladle soup into bowls. Garnish with a dab of sour cream (or thin sour cream with a little milk and drizzle it on the soup). Top with asparagus tips.
Variation: Add 1/2 cup or more of cream to the soup before serving and heat throughout.
Serves 6, each with 100 calories, 260 mg sodium, 19 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 5 mg fiber. Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 bread/starch, 1/2 fat.
-- "Come One, Come All/ Easy Entertaining With Seasonal Menus," by Lee Svitak Dean (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $29.95)
Note: Some cooks pre-poach eggs to speed up the last-minute effort. Then they put the eggs in cold water to stop the cooking and hold them there. Just before serving, they drop the eggs into simmering water for 1 minute to heat them up again.
ASPARAGUS WITH POACHED EGGS AND PARMESAN
2 bunches medium-thick asparagus (about 40 spears)
1 teaspoon white vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons coarsely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Cut off the bottoms of the asparagus spears. Break the eggs into 8 individual containers, such as teacups, prep bowls or paper cups. Prepare the poaching liquid for the eggs by bringing water, plus the vinegar and 4 pinches of salt, to a boil in a large, straight-walled, low-sided pan over medium heat.
To cook the asparagus: Bring salted water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the asparagus and cook it until it is as tender as you like it (3 to 4 minutes for crisp-tender). Remove the cooked asparagus from the water with tongs and set it aside while you make the sauce.
To make the sauce: Empty the water from the saucepan and dry it out. Add the olive oil and heat it over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute for about 1 minute, enough to take the raw edge off but not to give it much color.
Turn off the heat; then add the butter and swirl the pan. Add the lemon juice, parsley and salt and pepper to taste, and swirl the pan again to mix the ingredients. Put the asparagus back in the pan, add 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan and toss with the sauce to coat.
To poach the eggs: Make sure the water is boiling, then slowly pour each egg into the water. Let the eggs cook for about 2 minutes; then turn off the heat and remove the pan from the burner.
Meanwhile, divide the asparagus among 4 plates. Bring the plates of asparagus close to the pan of poached eggs, and place a folded clean kitchen towel next to the plates.
As quickly as possible after the eggs have cooked, use a slotted spoon to remove the eggs, one at a time, out of the poaching liquid, blotting the bottom of the spoon on the towel to absorb excess moisture.
Place 2 eggs on each mound of asparagus. Pour any remaining sauce over the eggs, and sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan over the top. Serve immediately
Serves 4, each with 328 calories, 25 grams fat, 400 mg sodium, 8 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams protein, 440 mg cholesterol, 3 grams fiber. Diabetic exchanges per serving: 2 vegetable, 2 medium-fat meat, 3 fat.
-- "Gale Gand's Brunch!" by Gale Gand (Clarkson Potter, $27.50)
Use a fruity olive oil and good balsamic vinegar to bring out the best flavors.
ASPARAGUS AND CITRUS SALAD
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
1 tablespoon good-quality balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
3 oranges (preferably blood oranges), divided
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
11/2 pounds asparagus, trimmed
Freshly ground black pepper, if desired
In a small bowl, combine the shallots with the vinegars, and let the shallots macerate for at least 20 minutes. Meanwhile, finely grate the zest of one of the oranges (avoid the white pith).
Add the zest to the shallots. Juice the zested orange to yield about 1/3 cup, and add the juice to the shallots. Slowly add the olive oil, stirring to mix.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the asparagus and simmer until just tender, about 4 minutes. Drain and spread the spears on paper towels to cool.
Cut off the ends of the remaining 2 oranges and peel them. Slice the peeled orange horizontally into 1/4-inch slices.
Just before serving, toss the cooled asparagus with the vinaigrette. Arrange the spears and the orange slices on salad plates. Sprinkle with pepper and serve immediately.
Serves 4, each with 126 calories, 7 grams fat, 190 m g sodium, 15 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 3 grams fiber, 0 cholesterol. Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 1/2 fruit, 11/2 fat.
-- "Fine Cooking Fresh," by the editors of Fine Cooking (Taunton Press, $19.95)
LEMON ORZO WITH ROASTED ASPARAGUS
1 cup orzo
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
Dash of coarsely ground pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
8 roasted asparagus spears*
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts**
Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
Combine lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Slowly add oil to juice mixture, stirring constantly with a small whisk or fork, until well blended. Add to pasta and toss to coat. Cool to room temperature. Cut roasted asparagus into 1-inch pieces. Stir in asparagus, parsley and pine nuts.
Makes 4 servings, each with 224 calories, 6 grams total fat , no cholesterol, 35 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 139 mg sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Tip: 1 medium lemon equals about 3 tablespoons of juice and 2 to 3 teaspoons zest. (3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon.)
*To roast asparagus, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Snap ends from asparagus and, if desired, remove scales with a vegetable peeler. Spray baking sheet with nonstick vegetable spray. Layer asparagus on baking sheet and spray generously with nonstick vegetable spray. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until asparagus is tender.
**To toast pine nuts, bake at 350 degrees 5 to 7 minutes or until just golden. Watch closely so they don't over brown.
-- Jill Wendholt Silva, McClatchy Newspapers
Creamy Asparagus Pasta
8 ounces penne pasta
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups milk
4 teaspoons whole-grain mustard
4 teaspoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for 3 minutes less than the package directions. Add asparagus and continue cooking until the pasta and asparagus are just tender, 3 minutes more. Drain and return to the pot.
Meanwhile, whisk milk, mustard, flour, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant and lightly browned, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Whisk in the milk mixture. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, and cook until thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in tarragon, lemon zest and juice.
Stir the sauce into the pasta-asparagus mixture. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the sauce is thick, creamy and coats the pasta, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan. Divide the pasta among 4 bowls and top with the remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan. Serves 4.
Etiquette experts say it's OK to eat the slender stalks in this recipe with your fingers.
Shopping tip: Look for sesame oil in the ethnic foods aisle.
ORIENTAL MARINATED ASPARAGUS
1 pound asparagus spears
2 tablespoons water
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon, divided
Remove tough ends and scales from asparagus. Place the stalks in glass pie plate and add water. Cover with a paper towel and microwave on high (100 percent) power 3 minutes or until just tender. Plunge asparagus into cold water and drain well.
Place remaining ingredients in zip-top plastic food bag, reserving 1 teaspoon lemon zest for garnish. Seal, then massage bag to blend well. Add asparagus and reseal bag. Refrigerate overnight or at least 2 hours. Drain marinade and discard. Serve cold.
Makes 4 servings, each with 37 calories (29 percent from fat), 1 gram total fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 5 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 302 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
-- McClatchy Newspapers