Dreaming of asparagus
Every May I look forward to fresh, crisp-tender stalks of asparagus. Mom used to tend the asparagus bed in her garden until her back gave out. Now we buy it at the farmers market.
This year, however, I spent May 1 in the hospital, then in a rehab facility. Here there is no fresh food — everything is canned or processed. So I can only listen longingly as the staff talk about visiting the local farmers market and buying asparagus.
Fresh asparagus is a delectable spring treat and the king of vegetables. If, like my friend Theresa, you’ve only had the canned variety, there is no comparison. The crisp, tender stalks are best when fresh; they lose moisture and flavor as soon as they’re harvested. This is why homegrown is so much better than what you can get in the store, which has often traveled from California.
With just 4 calories per stalk and zero fat or cholesterol, asparagus is a gift to dieters. It is also a good source of fiber, potassium, vitamins B6, A and C, and thiamine. A natural diuretic, asparagus can prevent the bloat many women experience prior to menstruation.
Asparagus has been cultivated in the Mediterranean region for over 2,000 years. Ancient Egyptians cultivated it as an offering to the gods, and its distinctive flavor was coveted by such historical figures as Julius Caesar, Louis XIV of France and our own Thomas Jefferson. It was popular from ancient Greece east to the Orient, so there are many ethnic dishes and ways to prepare it.
At the farmers market, look for firm, bright green spears that are straight and brittle, with tightly packed tips, and eat as soon as possible — the fresher, the tastier. Tips that are wilted or separated indicate that the asparagus is past its prime. If you need to store it, keep it in the coldest part of your refrigerator. To maintain freshness, wrap the stem ends in a damp paper towel, or stand them up in a couple of inches of water.
To cook, snap off the tough stem ends, wash in cool running water, and cook in boiling water for five to seven minutes, depending on the thickness of the spear. The cooking water will have a lot of flavor and can be saved and used in asparagus soup. You can also steam, grill or roast it.
Asparagus is versatile. Add it to salads, stir-fries, casseroles and soups. It is great with egg dishes like frittata and quiche. One of my favorite ways to eat it is simply to season with salt and top with butter, fresh minced parsley and poached eggs. Serve this with a side of potatoes or a crusty baguette.
My other favorite ways to eat it are in a grain, potato or pasta salad, wrapped in ham and served with parslied potatoes, or layered on a grilled cheese sandwich.
12 asparagus spears
12 slices deli ham (thin sliced)
6 American cheese slices
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Wash the asparagus. Break off the tough white ends, using only the tender green spears.
If you have an asparagus steamer, you can stand the spears up and cook them. If not, a wide saucepan will do. Bring water to a boil over high heat, add asparagus, and cook 5 to 8 minutes, till just crisp-tender. Cooking time will depend on thickness and freshness of spears. Drain and set aside. You may want to save the water for using in soup later.
Spray a large, shallow baking dish with cooking spray. To assemble, place one ham slice on board or plate; top with half a slice of American cheese. Place two or three asparagus spears on top of the ham; Roll up so the tips of asparagus are showing, and place in the dish, seam-side down in a single layer. Do the same with the rest of the asparagus, ham and cheese. If you wish, you can sprinkle a little additional grated cheese on top before shoving in the oven.
Bake until the cheese melts. Serve with boiled parslied potatoes.
Options: Add strips of red pepper to the wraps, or sprinkle asparagus with chopped scallions before wrapping.
Asparagus Cheese Sandwich
This open-faced sandwich makes a quick, easy lunch.
Four slices of stone-ground whole-wheat bread
Four slices cheese: American, mild Cheddar, Swiss or Provolone
1 tablespoon soft butter
1/2 pound asparagus spears
2 Tablespoons snipped chives or finely minced sweet onion (optional)
Butter bread slices. Sprinkle lightly with chives or sweet onions, if using. Cut asparagus in three-inch lengths, and arrange on the bread. Top with a slice of cheese. Stick under the broiler or in the toaster oven, and toast to crisp the bread and melt the cheese. Serves four.
Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: writing and cooking. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at yvonawrite @yvonawrites.