Never mind if there's still a nip in the air. If asparagus comes, can spring be far behind?
To be sure, the globalization of grocery produce means you can't infallibly tell the seasons from what shows up the shelves. But there's something about the appearance of those slender green stalks about the same time as the daffodils that promises warmer days and more flowers in the garden.
In fact, asparagus is a sort of flower -- a member of the lily family, according to the California Culinary Academy's "Cooking A to Z." The encyclopedic guide to foods and cooking also suggests storing asparagus upright in the refrigerator, with the ends of the stalks in water, or wrapping the stems in wet paper towels, and placing the stalks in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Properly stored, it can keep up to a week. And asparagus has very few calories, about 56 per pound, untrimmed.
Asparagus has been telegraphing spring for quite a long time, according to "Larousse Gastronomic," edited by Jenifer Harvey Lang: It was known to the Egyptians and the Romans, though it wasn't cultivated in France until the reign of Louis XIV. The Sun King loved asparagus.
Among asparagus aficionados, there is a schism concerning preparation. One side says true lovers of the vegetable do nothing more than steam the stalks until just tender and eat them out of hand. The other side believes that lovely as it is, asparagus should never be lonely; it deserves a sauce or some more sophisticated treatment. Personally, I think all microwaves should have a setting labeled "Asparagus," because that is the best way to cook -- and not overcook -- it. My oven has a setting for "Vegetables, firm" that does asparagus to perfection.
For those who prefer a little more fuss, here is a recipe from "Come On In!," an award-winning compilation of recipes from the Junior League of Jackson, Miss.
Veal scallops with asparagus, lime sauce
1 teaspoon saffron threads, divided use
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper to taste
12 veal scallops
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 2/3 cups dry white wine
1 teaspoon lime zest
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
4 tablespoons creme fraiche (recipe below) or heavy cream
12 green peppercorns
1 pound fresh, small asparagus, blanched
Combine 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads with flour, salt and pepper. Dust both sides of veal scallops with seasoned flour. Brown veal in oil on both sides, about 5 minutes total. Remove veal to serving platter and keep warm.
Deglaze skillet with wine, then add lime zest, lime juice and remaining saffron. Bring lime mixture to a boil and reduce to the consistency of syrup. Stir in creme fraiche, bring to another boil and stir in peppercorns. Surround veal scallops with asparagus and top with sauce.
Makes 1 pint
2 cups heavy cream
4 tablespoons buttermilk
Mix cream and buttermilk in screw-top glass jar. Allow to stand at room temperature for 12 hours or until very thick, similar to sour cream. Refrigerate for 36 hours before using -- it can be stored in refrigerator for as long as 10 days.
Creme fraiche can be boiled without curdling and is a delicious alternative to whipped cream on fruit or desserts.