When you see tender green asparagus in the market or poking their pointed crowns through garden soil, the meaning is clear--warm weather is here.
You can turn the event into a celebration of spring. Make asparagus the focal point of a midday meal. Take a pound of asparagus and trim them by snapping off the ends (save these for Cream of Asparagus Soup).
The trimmed asparagus are arranged, with points to the center, on a 12- or 10-inch round platter and doused with one-fourth cup water. A plastic-wrap cover, turned back on one side, and a cooking time of three minutes on HIGH (100% power) turns them bright green and tender.
After draining the platter (wrap a tea towel over the plastic wrap to hold all in place) we squirt on a little fresh lemon juice and garnish the rim with a chopped hard-cooked egg. The platter accompanied by a basket of Large Garlic-Thyme Croutons is a meal of pure delight.
Another way with asparagus is to add it to risotto. Risotto is a shimmering Italian rice dish made with chicken broth, butter and Parmesan cheese. Stir in a little half and half and flecks of steamed asparagus and you'll have a dish friends won't forget. It is also a good choice as a first course preceding a main-dish salad or poached fish.
Cream of Asparagus Soup makes the most of the asparagus stalks while saving the more tender tips for garnish or a salad served another day. You can keep the calorie count low by making the soup with yogurt rather than half and half.
LARGE GARLIC-THYME CROUTONS
1 (2-inch diameter) baguette or French or Italian bread, cut in half lengthwise)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Cut bread into 1/4-inch-thick ovals to make 24 pieces.
Line bottom of 2-quart (12 1/2x7-inch) rectangular microwave-proof dish with paper towel. Place bread in single layer on top of paper. It should just fit. Microwave on HIGH (100% power) 2 minutes. Bread should be dried (but not colored) at this point. If not, cook 30 seconds to 1 minute longer, checking carefully. Set aside.
Meanwhile, combine oil and garlic in 1-cup glass measure. Microwave on HIGH 1 minute. Remove paper towel from dish and reposition pieces of bread. Spoon oil-garlic mixture evenly over tops. Sprinkle with pepper and thyme.
Microwave on HIGH 1 to 2 minutes or until croutons are crisp. (At this point you may place them in airtight container up to 2 days.) Makes 24 croutons.
RISOTTO WITH ASPARAGUS
5 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 3/4 cups chicken broth
1 cup arborio, short-grain or converted rice
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup half and half
1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
Freshly ground pepper
Combine 3 tablespoons butter, garlic and onion in 3-quart microwave-proof casserole. Microwave on HIGH (100% power) 2 to 3 minutes or until onion is tender. Set aside.
Pour broth into 2-cup glass measure. Microwave, uncovered, on HIGH 2 minutes or until heated but not boiling.
Meanwhile, stir rice into onion mixture, coating every grain. Stir in warm broth. Cover with lid or plastic wrap, turned back little on 1 side. Microwave on HIGH 4 to 6 minutes or until boiling. Microwave on MEDIUM (50% power) 8 to 10 minutes or until rice swells and almost all liquid is absorbed. Stir in cheese and half and half. Cover again and let stand 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine asparagus with remaining 2 tablespoons butter in 1 1/2-quart microwave-proof casserole. Cover tightly with lid or plastic wrap, turned back slightly, and microwave on HIGH 3 to 7 minutes or until asparagus is tender, stirring once. Stir asparagus into rice at end of standing time. Serve with freshly ground pepper. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
CREAM OF ASPARAGUS SOUP
1 pound asparagus stalks
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup chopped shallots or green onions
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup half and half or nonfat plain yogurt
Remove tough ends from asparagus. Cut off tips and reserve. Cut spears into 1/2-inch pieces. Place 6 reserved asparagus tips in small dish. Cover with plastic wrap, turned back slightly, and microwave on HIGH 1 minute. Set aside for garnish. Reserve remainder for salad.
Combine butter and shallots in 3-quart microwave-proof casserole. Microwave on HIGH (100% power) 2 minutes or until shallots are tender. Stir asparagus stalks into casserole. Cover with lid or plastic wrap, turned back slightly, and microwave on HIGH 5 to 7 minutes or until asparagus is tender, stirring once. Puree mixture in blender or food processor and return to casserole.
Stir in chicken broth, half and half and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover again and microwave on HIGH 8 to 10 minutes or until soup is hot but not boiling, stirring once. Pour into bowls and garnish with asparagus tips. Makes 6 servings.
Note: To lower fat content, substitute 1 teaspoon canola oil for butter and use nonfat yogurt instead of half and half.