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March 12, 1987|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

Forget the calendar. Ignore the weather. Those tender-crisp first fresh green spears of the season say it all. Fat stalks of asparagus standing row upon row in the produce section are indisputable indications that spring is here. It's time to gorge. Indulgence is in.

The origins of this long, lean vegetable, according to the late food historian Waverley Root, are buried in obscurity. Who first discovered that asparagus was edible, and exactly when it became sought after as a menu item is unknown. That it was appreciated early on is obvious. According to Root in his definitive food encyclopedia, appropriately called "Food," the ancient Egyptians cultivated asparagus and offered it to their gods; Julius Caesar expressed a preference for it served with butter, and the Emperor Augustus, obviously a true asparagus connoisseur, was wise enough to have it served in a tender-crisp state.

Today's consumers have a marked advantage over the old-timers, however. We may have to pay a sizable amount per pound off season for this elegant spring vegetable, but at least we can savor it year-round if we're so inclined. None of this waiting until the right season these days.

It's this time of year, however, that asparagus abounds at prices that make it accessible to most. This also is the season when the arguments begin over how to cook it properly. Should a batch of asparagus stalks be tied together and placed cut-end down in a narrow, deep pan designed primarily to cook this particular vegetable? Should they be cooked lying flat in a large skillet in a half-inch or so of water? Should they be steamed? Or microwaved?

The answer is easy. Any and all of the above. And don't overlook the idea of slicing them into inch-long pieces and stir-frying or sauteing them. Cook asparagus however you please. Just don't overcook it. That is the No. 1 crime one can commit against this delightful taste of spring.

Asparagus is dreadful when cooked to a limp state. It loses its spectacular texture and shape, tends to become stringy and, worst of all, turns a horrendous grayish tone. It was never intended to become mushy. But it does need cooking to bring out the best of its flavor. The tender tips will, of course, cook much faster than the more dense stalks, which is a point in favor of cooking the spears in an upright fashion. However, when the stalks are allowed to cook just to the tender-crisp state where a fork tine will pierce them easily, there's no reason any of the other suggested cooking methods aren't suitable.

When buying asparagus, look for tightly closed tips and firm, well-greened stalks. Size selection is strictly a personal matter. Arguments have raged for years over whether the best asparagus is that which is skinny or the big, fat spears.

Once bought, if it is not to be used immediately, refrigerate the asparagus with the cut ends wrapped in paper towels. Don't wash asparagus until it's to be cooked. Then snap--don't cut--the tough ends from each stalk. Plunge the spears into water to wash them, trim the lower (and tougher) nibs from the stalks with a vegetable peeler or sharp knife and proceed with whatever recipe you have in mind.

Early in the season, asparagus deserves to be savored with little more embellishment than a bit of melted butter or lemon juice. There's plenty of time later to do dramatic things with it. Here are some suggestions for those times.

Asparagus Spoon Bread is an excellent main dish for a light meatless meal. The Egg Salad Asparagus Mold will fit in nicely at a buffet. And our Marinated Asparagus allows one to enjoy this seasonal delight the year-round.


1 1/2 pounds asparagus

1 1/2 cups milk

1/2 cup cornmeal

2 eggs, separated

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

Cheese Sauce

Snap tough ends off asparagus stalks. Wash well. Cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths. Cook, uncovered, in boiling water to cover, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup liquid for Cheese Sauce.

In medium saucepan, gradually stir milk into cornmeal. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened to consistency of moist mashed potatoes, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

Beat egg yolks until well mixed. Add to cornmeal mixture with baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix well. Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold into cornmeal mixture.

Arrange asparagus pieces in bottom of well-greased baking dish. Pour cornmeal batter over asparagus, smoothing over asparagus and to edge of casserole. Bake at 375 degrees 45 to 50 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with Cheese Sauce. Makes 4 servings.

Cheese Sauce

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 cup milk

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup reserved asparagus liquid

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

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