Herbs do their part when asparagus goes on the grill

March 29, 2006|By ROB KASPER

As soon as anything green shoots out of the soil, I get a craving for fresh asparagus.

There are several seasonal reasons behind my annual attraction to asparagus, or "spare grass," as it is called by some residents of Maryland's Eastern Shore.

One is that at this time of year, I am thrilled when any sign of life emerges from the cold, dead ground. It is too early for Maryland asparagus beds to rouse from their winter slumber. They won't start pushing spears skyward until May or June.

But the stuff that is popping up - crocus and green onions - looks vibrant and svelte. That is how spring asparagus looks when it emerges and also how we hope to look when we emerge from our springtime fitness regimes.

Asparagus tastes good and is loaded with vitamins and minerals. Each spring I try a new way to cook asparagus. Recently, I grilled some store-bought spears over sprigs of rosemary on my barbecue kettle cooker.

The asparagus spears were crisp and faintly smoky. The rosemary notes were there, but were not overpowering. The recipe was a keeper.

Grilling with herbs represented a major attitude shift for me. I used to make fun of people who threw herbs in their fires. Back in 1986, when former Oriole slugger and subsequent big bubba of barbecue Boog Powell suggested in his Mesquite Cookery cookbook that you might want to occasionally toss an herb or two on your coals, I smirked. That did not sound like typical Boog behavior to me. Back then, Boog allowed as to how the herb-tossing idea originated from a New York editor.

But the other day, when I rang him up at his Eastern Shore residence where he was splitting hunks of cherry wood in his backyard, Boog said that now he, too, welcomes herbs in his cooker.

"I do it all the time," Boog said. "I drop some basil leaves, or maybe a sprig of rosemary and some wine, in a foil pan set underneath a chicken. It imparts a nice flavor," he said.

His motivation to cook with herbs stemmed, he said, from a combination of whimsy and ordinary backyard behavior.

"I do it on a whim. I am out in the backyard puttering around and I see something and I grab it," Boog said. He said he grows herbs in pots and has grown two types of rosemary.

One type, a climber, was trained to grow on a coat hanger shaped into the letter p, producing a fragrant Powell family crest. The other type of rosemary, a creeper, drapes over the edges of the pot, he said.

He also grows mint and learned the hard lesson that unless mint is confined to a pot, it will take over your yard. "That happened to me in my house on Medford Road," Boog said, referring to the home near the old Memorial Stadium where he lived in the 1960s and '70s.

When prowling around on his Eastern Shore property, Boog grabs pieces of wood as well as herbs and feeds them to his cooker. The other afternoon, Boog was in the process of dismantling a felled cherry tree, a gift from a neighbor.

Pieces of that tree would, he said, eventually serve as fuel for his backyard cooker and for cookers at his Ocean City restaurant, but were too smoky for his Camden Yards operation.

I told Boog how I had fixed the asparagus, tossing the spears in extra-virgin olive oil, cooking them on the grill in a foil pan lined with sprigs of rosemary, then bathing them in more olive oil, salt, pepper, slivers of garlic and lemon rind, and chopped chives. When I tossed in those chives, the lightest ingredient, they tended to stay on top.

"Chives," Boog exclaimed. "I am crazy about chives." He also recommended that I try the creeping type of rosemary the next time I fix the dish. Subsequently, I learned that this type of rosemary is called Prostratus.

So as March winds blow and the beginning of baseball season draws near, I will grill asparagus, a sentinel of spring, and try the type of rosemary recommended by a well-seasoned slugger.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.

Seared Asparagus With Lemon Zest and Chives

Serves 4

1 bunch asparagus ( 3/4 pound), woody ends trimmed

3 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)

8 thick, long-stemmed rosemary sprigs

2 strips of lemon zest, julienne

2 garlic cloves, slivered

1/4 cup snipped chives

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat grill to medium.

Toss the asparagus with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Place a sheet of aluminum foil on the grill grate, or use a foil pan. Arrange the rosemary on the foil and then place the asparagus over and perpendicular to the rosemary sprigs.

Grill until the asparagus softens and becomes lightly browned all over, turning every minute or so to ensure even cooking. It will take 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus. The asparagus will be crisp-tender.

Remove the asparagus to a platter. Discard the rosemary sprigs. Add the lemon zest, garlic, chives, salt and pepper and the remaining olive oil. Toss to coat well and serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

From "The Italian Grill" by Micol Negrin

Per serving: 112 calories, 2 grams protein, 10 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 4 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 303 milligrams sodium

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