Chefs and gourmets the world over eagerly await the arrival of spring. No other time of year can match the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables available. Many will only be obtainable at this time. Asparagus is available year round but it's peak season runs from February through June. Thus, it is one of the earliest harbingers of spring and an indispensable commodity on all seasonal menus.
Asparagus, a member of the lily family, probably originated in the Eastern Mediterranean. Because it is found wild in so many areas of the globe, some uncertainty exists as to the whereabouts of its genesis. Indeed, a friend of mine who lives in a remote region of eastern Washington State has asparagus growing wild on his property. We do know that it was first cultivated 2,500 years ago by the Greeks and was equally cherished by the Romans who ascribed it with medicinal properties. It won't cure any diseases but it is a good source of vitamins A and C, folic acid, potassium and fiber.
Choose asparagus that are firm and bright green, with in tact tips. Cook it as soon as possible as it deteriorates fairly rapidly. Store it in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel wrapped around the stems. It will last about 3 days. Cut off the last inch or two of the stem or wherever it snaps naturally when you bend it near the end. Large asparagus are more mature, less tender, and also need to be peeled.
White asparagus, which are more popular in Europe, are grown underground to prevent the development of chlorophyll. They are tenderer with a mild and nuttier taste. However, no matter what size, their exteriors are fibrous and always need to be peeled.
And in case you're wondering, the reason your urine smells after consuming asparagus is because it contains a sulfur compound called mercaptan. Enzymes in your body break down the mercaptan into its stinky component parts. There is disagreement within the scientific community over which of these constituents is the fowl-smelling culprit. Moreover, because of human genetic variability, not everyone has the enzymes to metabolize mercaptan so some individuals will not produce urinary odor. And to take it one step further, there is even genetic diversity in our ability to detect the odor. Thus, some may have it without knowing it.
Asparagus is quite versatile. It can be cooked by virtually every cooking method. It can be boiled, steamed, simmered, grilled, roasted, sautéed and fried. It can be served cold or hot, pureed into soups, used in pasta sauce, etc. At one restaurant I worked I made asparagus flan. I thought it was absolutely gross but it exemplifies the breadth of asparagus' culinary applications.
ASPARAGUS SALAD WITH TRUFFLE VINAIGRETTE
For the salad:
6 large spears of asparagus
1 batch of mache, (or other salad green)
Parmesan cheese strips, as needed
Salt to taste
For the dressing:
1 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons black truffle oil
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Trim the ends of the asparagus and peel them. Then blanch them for one and a half minutes in boiling salted water and then submerge in ice water. Place the minced shallot and vinegar in a bowl. Slowly drizzle in the oils, constantly whisking. Season with salt and pepper.
Stack the asparagus in a crosswise pattern on the plate like a number sign (#). Place the mache in the center of the asparagus. Using a peeler, peel some strips of Parmesan cheese and arrange around the mache. Sprinkle salad with salt. Drizzle some of the dressing over the mache and asparagus.
Juice of 1-2 lemons
3 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 batch, (about 1-2 lbs.) white asparagus, peeled.
Add the lemon juice, butter, and salt to a pot of water and bring to a simmer. Peel the asparagus and trim the ends. Simmer until tender. How long this takes will vary with the size of the asparagus so check them frequently.
BAKED ASPARAGUS WITH PARMESAN CREAM SAUCE
4 oz heavy cream
1 oz grated Parmesan cheese
4 large asparagus spears
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons chicken broth
Salt, pepper, and paprika to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the cream and cheese, bring to a boil, and then simmer for five minutes. Season the sauce with salt and pepper. Trim the ends of the asparagus and peel them. Then blanch them for one minute in boiling salted water and then submerge in ice water. Place asparagus into a baking dish. Add chicken broth and butter and then place into oven until heated through, about 3-5 minutes. Arrange asparagus on plate, season with salt, pepper and paprika, and then drizzle with sauce.