CULTIVATING AN asparagus bed, like developing a top-quality major-league pitcher, requires at least several years of slow work. But every spring, fans get anxious for results. As soon as baseballs begin flying through the air, we want asparagus stalks to start pushing out of the soil. In Maryland, baseball usually arrives on the scene several weeks ahead of the local asparagus. So we make do with substitute stalks, flown in from warmer climes.
The annual return of fresh asparagus is a news-making event, a cause for celebration, a rite of spring.
Photos of asparagus stalks lined up like chorus girls start appearing on magazine covers and on newspaper food pages around the nation. Actually, some of these leggy stalks are probably guys, not gals. According to the facts of asparagus life found in Irena Chalmers' "The Great Food Almanac" (Collins, 1994), there are male and female stalks.
Male asparagus stalks have stamens, produce spores and tend to be long and lean. Female asparagus stalks are distinguished by pistils on their flowers, and tend to be plumper than the guy stalks.
According to another asparagus watcher, Edward Giobbi, author "Pleasures of the Good Earth" (Knopf, 1991), the spears, like some of us, tend to get thicker as they get older.
Regardless of a stalk's width or gender, you have got to hold asparagus' feet to the fire. At least that is one theory of how to cook asparagus. In this cooking method, the stalks are either bound together or placed up against each other like the wood used, in days of old, to burn a heretic. The comparison ends there. An asparagus fire isn't nearly as hot, or as consuming, as a heretic fire.
A better culinary comparison would probably be the hot-foot combustion techniques employed by baseball bench jockeys like former Oriole pitcher Moe Drabowsky. In this method, the feet of the victim are heated, usually by a book of matches planted in the bottom of his shoes. Once the fire is lighted, the feet get hot, and the victim usually gets mad, or steamed.
The same principles apply to this method of cooking asparagus. Namely, the feet of the asparagus are placed near the hot part of the fire, down in the bottom of a pot containing a few inches of boiling liquid. (Some cooks boil asparagus in vegetable broth, which they believe is kinder to the flavor of the stalks than the traditional medium of salted water.) And while their feet are near the fire, the rest of the asparagus gets steamed.
Another technique I have tried is cooking asparagus stalks on the barbecue grill. This method can be tried in the spring but will be more successful when attempted in the summer. The timing has more to do with the prowess of the cook than the condition of the crop. By midsummer, most backyard barbecuers have become proficient at sliding hunks of meat on and off the barbecue grill and are ready to take on the challenge of moving skinny asparagus stalks over the treacherous gaps in the grill.
The key to success in this endeavor is keeping the stalks of asparagus and the slats in the grill at opposing angles. If your grill is facing north-south, keep your asparagus stalks facing east-west.
For those who prefer methods simpler than binding or barbecuing asparagus, there is the cook-it-in-the-oven method. This comes from Giobbi, who recommends placing a single layer of asparagus in a long baking dish. The stalks are salted lightly and sprinkled with olive oil, then baked, uncovered, in a preheated, 400-degree oven until they are tender -- about seven minutes for homegrown asparagus, 15 minutes for store-bought. When served, they can be topped with a pesto sauce or with a little grated Parmesan cheese.
The polite way to eat asparagus is to cut it with a knife, and eat a bite-size piece with your fork.
But I confess that when I am alone and feeling playful, I often eat the stalks with my fingers. I grab one, holding it down at its wide end, and swing it, just like a small baseball bat, toward my waiting mouth.
Pub Date: 3/09/97