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Tips on Asparagus

March 30, 1989|JOAN DRAKE | Times Staff Writer

For a while it looked as though asparagus aficionados might not have much to celebrate this spring. Cold weather limited supplies of the vegetable and prices in early March were hovering up around $5 and $6 a pound. Fortunately, the situation turned around in mid-month and it'll no longer take a mortgage on the house to bankroll buying enough of the sprightly spears to satiate your appetite during the all-too-short season that this vegetable is plentiful.

Having a penchant for asparagus is nothing new. Records show that early Egyptians enjoyed eating wild asparagus, and by 200 BC the Romans had written down directions for growing and drying the vegetable. Its popularity spread through Europe to England, then crossed the Atlantic with early settlers to this country. Today, California produces about 70% of the nation's supply of fresh green asparagus.

There seem to be a lot of opinions about whether the best asparagus spears are those that are pencil-slim or the size of a fat crayon, but in truth, it boils down to personal preference. The important thing in determining quality is to look for spears that are straight, crisp and uniformly green (except for the very lowest portion) with pointed, compact tips.

Because asparagus is very perishable, it's best enjoyed as soon as possible after purchase. If it must be refrigerated a day or two, some references suggest wrapping the lower ends in a damp paper towel. Figure about two servings per pound when estimating how much to buy.

Whether to snap or cut off the bottom portion, and deciding if the spears should be peeled or not, is also up to the cook. However, in "Greene on Greens" (Workman Publishing: 1984) the late Bert Greene claimed, "I never slice off the bottoms because, as with cut flowers, water enters more freely if the stalk is roughly torn."

Greene believed peeling was a necessity, except for the thinnest spears, because the tough outer flesh was hard to digest. His instructions were to peel the spears with a vegetable peeler, removing the scales and stringy skin beginning about an inch down from the tip. Greene also noted, "I never wash asparagus until after it is peeled, contrary to the advice you may have read elsewhere."

Between the short season and the versatility of asparagus, most of us find it difficult to consume too much of this vegetable. It tastes equally good hot, at room temperature or chilled. Nutritionally, asparagus is rich in Vitamin A and has fair amounts of Vitamin B, Vitamin C and iron. And at only 35 calories per cup, cooked, even those watching their waistlines needn't worry about overindulging.

ASPARAGUS--BASIC PREPARATION

To Steam-Boil:

Divide spears into serving-size bunches and tie loosely with string. Stand in deep pan, add boiling water to depth of 1 inch and salt, if desired. Cover and cook over medium heat about 10 minutes, until just tender.

To Boil:

Place spears in skillet or wide-bottom pan. Add boiling water to depth of 1/2 inch and salt, if desired. Cover, bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer 3 to 5 minutes, until just tender.

To Microwave:

Place spears in shallow, flat dish with stem ends toward outside edges and tips at center. Add small amount water and cover tightly with vented plastic wrap. Microware at MEDIUM-HIGH (70% power) 13 to 16 minutes per pound, rotating dish every 5 minutes.

EXQUISITE SALAD

1 cup white and brown rice mix

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

3/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar

1 clove garlic, minced

1 cup cilantro leaves

Salt

White pepper

2 cups shredded cooked chicken, chilled

1/2 cup sliced green onions

1 cup diced tomato

2 cups chopped escarole

1 1/2 cups chopped cooked asparagus, chilled

1 avocado, peeled and chopped

Prepare rice according to package directions. Chill.

Place vinegar, oil, sugar, garlic and cilantro in blender container. Blend until smooth. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

Combine rice, chicken, green onions, tomato, escarole, asparagus and avocado. Toss with dressing. Serve immediately or chill to blend flavors. Makes 8 cups.

ASPARAGUS-BEEF STIR-FRY

1 cup onions, cut julienne

2 teaspoons minced garlic

Peanut oil

1 pound top sirloin, cut in thin strips

1 tablespoon minced ginger root

2 cups 1-inch diagonally cut asparagus

1 cup sliced mushrooms

1 cup pea pods

1/2 cup sweet red pepper, cut julienne

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup soy sauce

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 cup bean sprouts

Pepper

Stir-fry onions and garlic in 2 tablespoons oil in skillet or wok over high heat until onions are translucent. Remove with slotted spoon to large bowl.

Add small amount oil to pan if necessary, then beef and ginger. Stir-fry until beef is browned. Remove and add to onions and garlic.

Again add small amount oil to pan if necessary, then asparagus, mushrooms, pea pods and sweet red pepper. Stir-fry until vegetables are tender-crisp. Add to mixture in bowl.

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