When it comes to asparagus, the spears take their toll

April 07, 2004|By ROB KASPER

I HAVE TWO issues with asparagus - growing it and cooking it.

On the growing front, I have had no success. I have tried digging a trench and planting asparagus roots in it. I have taken a shot at starting asparagus from seed. I have nurtured the prospective asparagus patch, feeding it the finest, very natural and very aromatic fertilizers. I have covered it with a blanket of leaves in the fall. I have displayed the patience of a major-league pitching coach, waiting three full years for things to come to fruition.

Yet all I have to show for these efforts are bunches of green onions, the weedy kind. They pop up in the garden where the asparagus is supposed to be.

This crop failure feeds a bad case of asparagus envy. Right next to my plot in the community garden in Druid Hill Park, asparagus thrives. Another nearby gardener even gets his crop to appear in Technicolor. In addition to plain ole ordinary green, his stalks show up sporting a fetching shade of purple.

Every spring as I scratch the ground, yanking out onions and dandelions, I cast a covetous eye on the tender stalks - few vegetables taste better than freshly picked asparagus - swaying seductively in other people's gardens.

So far, the only place I have harvested asparagus is the grocery store, plucking several pounds of California-grown varieties. Once I get them home, I feel under some pressure to come up with a new way to cook them.

There are some old reliable, no-nonsense recipes - simply steaming or baking the asparagus. That is midsummer stuff. One of my rites of spring is to try to pull some new asparagus trick out of my hat. Last year, I tried dipping the spears in an egg batter, then frying them in hot oil. It worked, sorta. Deep-fried asparagus, like deep-fried anything, tastes great. But when you fry a vegetable in oil, you plunge it into the realm of saturated and trans-unsaturated fats, a realm where the health benefits are minimal. Plus you make a mess in the kitchen.

This spring, I was looking for some asparagus treatment that called for a little less saturated fat and a lot less pot scrubbing. I found it in Celebrate!, Sheila Lukins' cookbook aimed at coming up with menus for big and small holidays.

In her new cookbook Lukins, food editor for Parade magazine and co-author of the widely successful 1985 Silver Palate cookbook, had worked up asparagus dishes for several spring celebrations, including Passover and Easter.

The one that caught my eye was a side dish for Easter dinner. It called for wrapping asparagus spears in pancetta - salt-cured Italian pork - and baking the bunches in the oven, then sprinkling them with a vinaigrette.

"Fresh asparagus is really spectacular," Lukins told me in a brief telephone interview from New York. She described how she once used to pluck spears from a 21-foot-long asparagus bed in the back yard of her former home in Connecticut. "I would snap it off and eat it raw," she said. When I heard that account, my tongue was hanging from my mouth.

When asparagus is roasted, Lukins said, the flavors intensify. Then this vegetable that, according to Lukins, is often treated "like a never-been-kissed debutante gently and subtly" becomes a deb "ready to paint the town."

There was a sale on asparagus at the grocery store, and the two bunches I bought looked green and lean. Their bottom portions were, alas, tough and woody. But a few quick moves on the chopping board with a sharp knife made the stalks shorter, more tender and more uniform.

The recipe called for wrapping five to six spears of asparagus with strips of pancetta. But I did not have any of the salt-cured pork in my fridge. I did have some thin slices of prosciutto - Italian-style ham - as well as some slices of country ham. So I substituted the hams and wrapped them around the asparagus spears, and cooked them in a preheated 400-degree oven.

The country ham worked better than the prosciutto. The former held its shape in the heat of the oven, but the prosciutto turned into crisp ham chips.

Once they came out of the oven, the ham-wrapped asparagus bunches were greeted with a vinaigrette made of honey, sherry vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil and sliced shallots. It was a dish that worked. It looked interesting. The ham hung on the bright green asparagus spears like a pair of low-riding jeans. The flavors of the roasted asparagus, the ham and the sharp vinaigrette were strong, but they got along well with each other.

As good as this dish was, I could only imagine how much better it would have tasted if I had had homegrown, not store-bought, spears.

Hot Roasted Asparagus

Serves 8

1/4 cup sherry vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus more for brushing

coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 shallots, thinly sliced lengthwise

2 pounds raw untrimmed asparagus

8 thin slices pancetta (or substitute country ham)

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400 degrees.

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