The best-dressed veggie Food: Swathe asparagus, springtime's favorite, in an elegant sauce, and your dinner will be sitting pretty.

March 24, 1996|By EATING WELL United Feature Syndicate

Fresh vegetables are one of the joys of spring, and tender asparagus spears are among the season's finest delicacies.

According to the Food Lover's Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst (Barron's, 1990), asparagus is a cultivated form of the lily family. The earliest stalks are apple-green with purple-tinged tips.

Traditionally, the season for fresh asparagus has been February through June, but some specialty stores also have fresh asparagus at other times of the year.

When buying asparagus, look for firm, bright spears with closed tips. Usually the thinner spears are the most tender. For the most even cooking results, choose tips of similar size.

Keep in mind that 1 1/2 pounds of asparagus will feed four people.

The delicate asparagus tips cook more quickly than the stalks, which are wrapped in a tough skin.

To ensure perfect cooking from end to end, we recommend peeling the stalks: It is time-consuming but worth the trouble. First snap off the woody bottoms. With a paring knife, remove the skin from just below the tip to the base.

To steam: Place spears in a large steamer set in a large pot over simmering water, cover and cook just until tender, about 5 minutes. Steaming produces delicately flavored asparagus with tender bite and a beautiful spring-green color.

To microwave: Lay spears in a large microwaveable dish and add 1/4 cup water. Cover with vented plastic wrap. Microwave on high power for 4 to 6 minutes, or just until tender. Microwaving gives the same benefits as steaming but is a handy method when the stove top is otherwise occupied.

To roast: On a baking sheet, sprinkle spears with 1 teaspoon olive oil and salt and pepper to taste; toss to evenly coat. Roast at 450 degrees until lightly browned and tender, 10 to 15 minutes, shaking or tossing once during roasting. Roasted asparagus is not as elegantly pretty as when it is steamed or microwaved, but the high heat caramelizes the vegetable's juices, intensifying the flavor.

Here are some great toppings for spring's slender stalks:

Roasted red pepper sauce

Makes 1/2 cup

2 small red bell peppers

1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 tablespoon olive oil, preferably extra-virgin

2 teaspoons cider vinegar

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Place peppers directly over the flame of a gas burner or under a heated broiler. Roast, turning often, until black all over, about 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool. Slip off the skins, cut away the stems, slit the peppers open and remove seeds.

2. In a food processor, puree the peppers. (You should have about 1/2 cup puree.) With a rubber spatula, force the puree through a fine strainer set over a small bowl; discard solids. Whisk in tomato paste, oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. (The sauce can be made up to 3 days in advance; store, covered, in the refrigerator.) Serve over hot or room-temperature asparagus.

Substitution: In a pinch, bottled roasted red peppers are fine.

25 calories per tablespoon; 0 grams protein; 2 grams fat (0 grams saturated fat); 2 grams carbohydrate; 2 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol

Walnut-oil vinaigrette

Makes about 1/2 cup

1 tablespoon chopped walnuts

1/4 cup white-wine vinegar

3 tablespoons walnut oil

3 tablespoons strong brewed tea

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Toast walnuts in a small dry skillet over medium heat, shaking or stirring almost constantly, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Let cool. In a small bowl, combine remaining ingredients; whisk until well-blended. (The sauce can be made up to 2 days in advance: store, covered, in the refrigerator.)

2. Spoon the vinaigrette over room-temperature asparagus and sprinkle with the toasted walnuts.

50 calories per tablespoon; 0 grams protein; 6 grams fat (1 gram saturated fat); 1 gram carbohydrate; 4 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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