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Asparagus: Off to a Slow Start

April 15, 1993|LESLIE LAND

Planting asparagus is an investment in the future. The vegetable takes two to three years to start bearing, then it keeps on for years. And it can grow almost anywhere.

Crowded and/or female plants produce thin spears; well-spaced male plants are usually fatties. Earlier shoots are typically more robust than those from late in the season.

Though many gourmets insist grass-thin asparagus has the best flavor, this is probably because the thin spears are more likely to be absolutely fresh. When the stuff is only a quarter-inch thick, there's no way to peel off the blemishes.

Regardless of size, fresh asparagus will have a dull sheen, with no sign of shriveling at the ends or along the stalk. The scales at the tip will be tightly closed, the buds completely undeveloped. Increasingly in the last few years I've seen otherwise good-looking asparagus that had rot starting at the points, so be sure to check carefully for dark-green soft spots.

White asparagus is a special case, its bleached appearance the result of a life spent underground. A luxury item seldom sold fresh, white asparagus is sweet and tender, but not very strongly asparagus-flavored. Other than that, there are few distinctions. Unlike potatoes and tomatoes, asparagus comes in relatively few varieties and all of them are tasty. Quality is mostly a matter of growing conditions and freshness.

Store asparagus upright with its cut ends on a dampened towel. You can put it in a plastic food bag, but don't close the top; too much humidity promotes spoilage. Large spears often have tough scales, and though there's nothing wrong with the skin, the easiest way to get rid of these scales is to peel the whole stalk with a vegetable peeler.

Toughness at the ends varies greatly. All you have to do is break them off, but it does affect value. Inexpensive asparagus that's one-third wood may not be all that much of a bargain unless you're planning to make soup and can use the flavor in the ends.

In Thomas Jefferson's time, asparagus was most commonly boiled in a lot of salted water, drained, then served on top of a piece of toast that had taken a dip in the cooking liquid. Sounds soggy but tastes great, as it turns out. In this more elaborate dish, escarole joins the asparagus, and meaty portobello mushrooms, creamy mascarpone and a dash of Parmesan add enough richness and complexity to make this a satisfying, meat-free main dish. A shallow, flameproof baking pan is best to finish the dish in--a heavy copper gratin pan is best, but an iron skillet will do.

GRATIN OF ASPARAGUS AND ESCAROLE WITH PORTOBELLOS AND PARMESAN 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 large cloves garlic, minced 1 medium head escarole 1 1/2 pounds thick asparagus stalks, trimmed and peeled Salt 3 portobello mushroom caps, each about 4 inches in diameter (reserve stems for another use) 5 or 6 slices French or other firm white bread, crusts trimmed off, lightly toasted 3 to 4 ounces mascarpone cheese, optional 1/2 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese

Lightly oil shallow, non-reactive 11x7-inch baking dish and season with bit of minced garlic.

Remove coarse outer leaves of escarole, trim off base and wash inner leaves well. Place few leaves in pan, add half asparagus and sprinkle with bit of minced garlic. Layer on half remaining escarole, then remaining asparagus. Sprinkle with minced garlic each time. Finish with layer of escarole. Season to taste with salt. Pour in 1/2 cup of water. Cover pan tightly with foil.

Bake at 375 degrees 35 to 45 minutes, or until asparagus is tender.

Meanwhile, slice mushroom caps into strips 1/3-inch wide. Film shallow, flameproof baking pan with olive oil and place over medium-high heat. As oil starts to smoke, add mushroom slices, spreading in single layer. It may be necessary to do 2 batches.

Cook mushrooms, turning once, about 4 minutes per side or until well browned and slightly crisp. Add more oil sparingly to keep mushrooms from burning. Remove mushrooms and set aside. Reserve unwashed pan.

When asparagus is cooked, remove from oven, move rack to upper 1/3 and raise heat to broil. Line mushroom pan with toast, spread asparagus and escarole on it and pour in juices. Spread top with mascarpone, sprinkle with Parmesan and broil until top is flecked with brown. Garnish with reserved mushrooms and serve at once. Makes 2 main-dish or 4 to 6 side-dish servings.

Note: Mascarpone is rich, like cream cheese mixed with whipped cream. Cholesterol watchers should probably do without. Gratin will be less filling but still tasty. Do not substitute low-fat alternatives (farmer cheese, drained yogurt, etc.), which only call attention to an absence that would otherwise go unnoticed.

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