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Dinner Tonight! | Cooking Class

A Whole Bunch of Asparagus Tips

April 17, 2002|FAYE LEVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I've been served asparagus so soft and limp it seemed to come out of a can. What a waste of a fresh springtime treat!

Cook asparagus briefly and check often to be sure it retains a little crunch. Some insist on tying asparagus in bundles or steaming it in an asparagus cooker but you don't have to.

The most practical technique is to handle the spears like other green vegetables: Boil them briefly in salted water, then rinse them with cold water if you're not eating them right away. This stops the cooking process and keeps their color vivid.

If you're serving the boiled asparagus hot, heat it for a minute or two in butter or oil with seasonings. You can also toss thick, whole, unpeeled asparagus spears with oil and roast them at 450 degrees for 10 minutes or even grill them for a few minutes.

Asparagus is most tender at the tip. The spear's upper third is good even raw. Toward the bottom the stalk becomes tough, and its woody base must be removed.

Pencil-thin asparagus stalks do not require peeling, but I find that thicker ones are often more flavorful. I usually peel the lower part so it will be as tender as the top.

To peel asparagus, lay it on a work surface, peel it from halfway down the spear toward the base, turn it and peel it again. (If you hold the stalk in the air like a cucumber, it might break during peeling.)

Don't throw the bases and peelings away. Cook them in water with carrot and onion trimmings for 30 minutes, and you'll get a savory vegetable broth.

Choose asparagus that's firm but not dried out, with compact, closed tips. Remove any rubber bands and refrigerate the vegetable unwashed in a plastic bag up to three days.

Wrapping the bases in damp paper towels helps keep the asparagus fresh.

Faye Levy is author of the James Beard Award winner, "Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook" (Warner, 1993).

*

Asparagus Salad With Carrots and Shiitake Mushrooms

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 1 hour * Vegetarian

With its simple, Chinese-inspired dressing, this colorful salad is good hot or cold, as an appetizer or as a partner for meat or chicken. If you like, cook the vegetables ahead. If you're serving them hot, heat them in a little oil for extra richness and shine, then add the dressing directly to the skillet. For serving cold, add the asparagus at the last moment.

8 large dried shiitake mushrooms

Salt

3/4 pound asparagus spears, peeled if over 1/4 inch thick

2 or 3 long, slim carrots (about 1/2 pound), peeled

2 teaspoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons hoisin sauce, or more to taste

2 teaspoons rice vinegar, or more to taste

2 to 5 teaspoons vegetable oil

Freshly ground pepper

Few drops hot sauce, optional

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped green part of green onions, optional

1/2 teaspoon Asian sesame oil

Place the mushrooms in a bowl. Cover them with hot water and let them soak until soft, about 30 minutes. Remove the mushrooms, rinse them and cut off the tough stems. (You can save them for simmering in vegetable stock). Slice the mushroom caps.

Meanwhile, bring a saucepan of salted water to a boil. Cut the asparagus on the bias in 3 or 4 pieces, discarding the tough white bases (about 1/2 inch from the end). Cut the carrots in diagonal pieces about the same length as the asparagus pieces.

Add the asparagus to the boiling salted water; it should be covered generously. Boil until the pieces are barely tender, about 2 or 3 minutes; to check, lift a few on a slotted spoon and pierce them with a knife tip. Drain the asparagus, reserving the liquid. Rinse the asparagus with cold running water and drain it well.

Combine the asparagus cooking liquid, carrots, mushrooms and a pinch of salt in the saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer until the carrots are just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain well. (The liquid makes tasty stock.)

For the dressing, whisk the soy sauce, 2 teaspoons of hoisin sauce and 2 teaspoons of vinegar in a small bowl until combined. Whisk in 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil and a little salt, pepper and hot sauce.

To serve the salad hot, heat 2 to 3 teaspoons of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, asparagus and carrots and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook until hot, about 30 seconds. Add the dressing and heat for a few seconds, shaking the pan. Turn off the heat, add the green onions and sesame oil and toss to combine.

To serve the salad cold or at room temperature, toss the dressing with the carrots and mushrooms. Just before serving, add the asparagus, green onions and sesame oil.

Taste and adjust the amounts of salt, pepper, hoisin sauce and vinegar.

4 servings. Each serving: 102 calories; 316 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 3.85 grams fiber.

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