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IN THE KITCHEN : Faint Praise for Skinny Asparagus

March 03, 1994|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

When it comes to asparagus, I'm afraid my tastes are a bit, shall we say, infra dig. While the trends seem to dictate that to be up-to-date in your asparagus selection you must select only the slenderest, weediest stalks, I have to confess that I like 'em large.

No stringy little waif look for me. I like asparagus fat and I like it cooked. Give me a plate of asparagus thick as my pointer-finger. Peel them, boil them in their own juices well past al dente and then dress them in nothing but a little really good olive oil, salt and pepper and maybe just a single sunbeam of lemon juice.

Asparagus cooked this way has an almost decadent, mousse-y texture. It tastes like the essence of the vegetable turned into butter. And what could be better than that?

But I will make one big exception at this time of year. With the worst of winter safely behind us, but the full flower of spring still a storm or two away, one of my favorite light suppers is a frittata made with the thinnest, wildest-looking asparagus you can find.

Thin asparagus works best for this dish because it seems to give up its flavor to the butter and eggs while at the same time it retains its texture better. It looks prettier too. There is something primal about a thick, soft pillow of golden eggs shot through with wiry little lengths of asparagus.

Metaphorically, I'm on solid ground here: Asparagus and eggs are both age-old symbols of the coming of spring, and there's not a heck of a lot else in the dish.

But beyond that, there's an equally sound gastronomic argument to be made. Eggs and asparagus are one of those archetypal taste combinations. And when they are cooked very simply, you get the full effect of the marriage.

When hollandaise sauce--really nothing more than scrambled eggs with a Cordon Bleu education--was first poured over boiled asparagus, this is probably the combination the cooks were trying to improve upon.

A properly made frittata will have almost the same rich, eggy flavor, and the texture--moist and melting--shouldn't be far off either. Though the frittata is commonly called an Italian omelet, I think it has more in common with good old American scrambled eggs, if you make them right.

Cooked this way, the frittata should be lightly browned on top, but as undercooked inside as you can stand it. I'm a sunny side-up guy myself, so I like my frittatas pretty soft inside--a creamy rather than airy egg. If you're going to serve it at room temperature, though (and they're almost as good this way), cook it a little drier.

Getting just the right degree of doneness takes close attention and a little manipulating of the fire. The eggs will be just at the right stage when they shine on top and still hold their shape. Flip them quickly, just to set the bottom, and serve, dusted with a bit more cheese.

The other difference between a frittata and an omelet is that with a frittata, the asparagus has a chance to cook with the eggs, rather than being something added at the last minute. This way there is a subtle transfer of flavors from the asparagus to the butter to the eggs.

It's beautiful and it's delicious, but I know it's a temporary thing. By the time Easter rolls around, I'll be safely returned to the more opulent charms of my real love and all of its zaftig glory.

ASPARAGUS FRITTATA

1 pound thin asparagus, unpeeled, ends trimmed

3 tablespoons butter

9 eggs

1 tablespoon water

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Salt

Cut asparagus into 1 1/2- to 2-inch lengths, reserving tips. Melt butter over medium heat in non-stick 9-inch saute pan. Add asparagus stems, not tips, and cook, stirring occasionally, until stems begin to soften, about 5 minutes.

In mixing bowl, lightly beat eggs with water and 2 tablespoons cheese. Eggs should lighten slightly but should not foam. Add asparagus tips and stir well.

Add egg mixture to saute pan. Cook 1 minute, then begin forming frittata, pushing sides of egg mixture into center, allowing liquid eggs to come in contact with pan. Continue pushing, without stirring, until eggs on bottom are solid and just beginning to brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. Cover with lid and cook last minute, to set top of eggs.

Place dinner plate directly over saute pan and, firmly holding plate and pan together, invert, so eggs come out onto plate. Remove pan from plate, return pan to heat and slide eggs back into pan so that eggs are now upside-down. Cook another 1 to 2 minutes, depending on how runny or firm you want frittata to be.

Alternatively, place pan (oven-proof only) under broiler and cook just long enough to puff top and brown lightly.

Slide frittata out onto clean plate. Dust top with remaining 2 tablespoons cheese. Season lightly to taste with salt. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

292 calories; 399 mg sodium; 505 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 0.94 gram fiber.

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