Sign of Spring

The arrival of asparagus is cause for celebration

April 07, 1999|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

Even when you can't tell it's spring by the weather, you can tell from the price of season's signature vegetable in supermarkets: If asparagus is under $1.50 a pound, spring has arrived.

People who like asparagus are legion, and it seems to inspire such passion that those who profess fondness for it almost always say it's their favorite vegetable.

"I love it," said John Shields, whose restaurant, Gertrude's, is at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "It's one of my favorite things. I know it's a cliche, but it really is one of the things you always wait for in the spring. It's so wonderful."

While Shields says he likes asparagus when it's simply prepared -- blanched and tossed in vinaigrette, for instance -- he also likes to dress it up.

For instance, he marinates it, wraps it in thinly sliced Smithfield ham and grills it, then sprinkles it with lemon juice. He also serves it pureed in a timbale with a fresh, uncooked tomato sauce.

"The thing about asparagus is it's totally unique, taste-wise," Shields said. "It's not like it tastes like anything else -- it's asparagus."

Caterer Jerry Edwards of Chef's Expressions in Timonium has a favorite way -- "which is also the simplest" -- to prepare asparagus. He tosses the stalks in extra-virgin olive oil (peeling the tough parts of the stems unless the stalks are pencil-thin), sprinkles them with lemon juice, sea salt and cracked pepper, then spreads them on a baking sheet in a single layer and roasts them in a 500-degree oven for about 10 minutes, until they are tender. When the stalks are done, he tosses them with grated pecorino-Romano cheese before serving.

But he also makes a salad of grilled asparagus, grilled onion, grilled red peppers and pistachio nuts, dressed with a blue-cheese vinaigrette.

"We do get people that want asparagus with hollandaise sauce," Edwards said, "which I guess is OK, but these [preparations] are so much more exciting."

Amanda Hesser, now a New York Times reporter, went to cooking school in France and spent a year cooking for Anne Willan, the author and cooking teacher who runs Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne at her 17th-century chateau in Burgundy. Hesser says that, if anything, the arrival of spring asparagus is even more important in France.

"Asparagus season is really celebrated," says Hesser, who has written a book about her cooking experience in France called "The Cook and the Gardener" (Norton, 1999, $32.50).

The "gardener" of the title is Roger Milbert, who tended the chateau's walled potager, or kitchen garden. "He grew white and green asparagus," Hesser says. "In France, white asparagus is eaten more."

White asparagus is harvested before the stalks emerge from underground, and it is more expensive than green asparagus, she says. The French also prefer really fat asparagus stalks, she said. "Once you get used to it, it is a meatier, more interesting texture vegetable."

In France, white asparagus is always peeled, because the skin is tough. Only restaurants peel green asparagus, she said. "In the country, they just hold it in their hands and bend it, and where it snaps separates the tough part from the tender part." The ends aren't wasted; they're used for soups and purees.

She likes to serve early green asparagus simply, blanched with a vinaigrette dressing. Tarragon vinaigrette is one of her favorites. "Asparagus goes really well with tarragon," she says. "You would never think it, with the anise-licorice flavor of the tarragon, and the sharp, clean taste of the asparagus, but they complement each other very well."

She does not, however, limit herself to that. She offers, for instance, an asparagus risotto. The creamy, rich texture and flavor of the rice is offset perfectly by the vegetable, she says, providing "little clean bursts of flavor in your mouth."

She also likes asparagus with braised lamb and garlic and peas. "It's such a nice spring dish. It's not really warm yet, so you're still eating stews and roasts, but the asparagus gives a little touch of spring."

One of asparagus' charms is its versatility, she said. You can boil it, you can grill it, you can use it in other dishes. One thing you don't want to do is put it with any other heavy tastes, she said. "You don't want the asparagus to get lost."

Hesser's book includes notes on shopping for vegetables, including asparagus -- a subject about which she feels strongly.

"Unless you have a garden," she writes in the book, "you are more or less subject to the consciousness of the supermarket or farmer's market near you. If they don't care for the produce they sell, or respect the seasonality of the produce, you are faced with a bewildering array of fruits and vegetables, making the challenge of preparing sound meals more difficult. Learning the standard seasons of vegetables and what to expect from them simplifies your job. If you demand good produce, and know when and what to look for, your cooking will show it."

Asparagus Timbale

Serves 6

3 pounds of asparagus

3 tablespoons butter, melted

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