Splendor in the asparagus

May 10, 1998|By Annette Gooch | Annette Gooch,universal press syndicate

Like onions and leeks (the other edible members of the lily family), asparagus is botanically related to the grasses, which may be why it was called "sparrowgrass" in 18th-century England. Later, it was the English who invented tongs for serving asparagus (even though it was eaten with the fingers).

Asparagus has even inspired its own piece of cookware: the asparagus steamer, a tall, lidded pot with a perforated liner or wire basket to hold the spears upright. The ends of the stalks simmer in a small amount of water while the tips steam.

If you don't have an asparagus steamer, you can improvise one, using a double boiler or even two saucepans of the same diameter. The bundle of asparagus is placed upright in a small amount of simmering water in the bottom pan, and the second pan is inverted over the first to trap the steam.

With either the asparagus steamer or double boiler, a bundle of young, pencil-slim stalks can cook in less than 5 minutes; thicker stalks take 8 to 10 minutes. Because the size of the stalks and the bundle varies, it's best to test for doneness by piercing several stalks with a fork.

Another way to cook asparagus is in a frying pan, with an inch or so of boiling water in the bottom. Add the spears, laying them parallel, two layers deep, and cook them, partially covered, over medium-high heat until they test tender (about 5 to 7 minutes), shaking the pan occasionally.

Or you can microwave asparagus, covered, on high (100 percent power) with 2 tablespoons of water in a microwave-proof dish. Microwave for 4 to 7 minutes, depending on the size of the spears; let stand one minute before serving.

Success tips

* Asparagus season generally runs from mid-February through June.

* Select smooth, round, straight spears with bright green color running two-thirds of the way down the stalk. The stalks should be firm and free of soft spots. Look for spears with closed, compact tips; partially opened tips are a sign that the spears were too mature when harvested and may be tough.

* To prepare asparagus, snap the stalks, letting them break naturally where the stalk becomes tender. Trim with a knife, if desired. Discard the tough ends or save for soup or stock.

Lemon butter is a classic complement to fresh asparagus. If you're lucky enough to have any leftover asparagus, toss it with cooked pasta, olive oil, garlic and grated Parmesan for a tempting lunch the next day.

Steamed Asparagus With Lemon Butter

Makes 4 servings

1 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus

LEMON BUTTER:

Makes about 1/4 cup; enough for 1 1/2 pounds asparagus

2 tablespoons butter

juice of half a lemon

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

Snap asparagus spears, discarding ends or reserving them for soup. Bundle spears with kitchen string.

Bring 2 inches of water to a boil in asparagus steamer or bottom of double boiler.

Stand asparagus upright in boiling water. Cover, reduce heat slightly, and cook until barely tender (about 5 to 8 minutes). Drain, drizzle with lemon butter and serve at once.

For the lemon butter, melt butter in small pan over medium heat; whisk in lemon juice and nutmeg. Pour over cooked asparagus.

1998 Cole Publishing Group Inc.

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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