FOOD FOR THOUGHT: An Ode to Asparagus

It's that time of year again. Just when everyone begins to gear up for the summer and spend more time outside, so too does the first crops of spring vegetables begin to poke through the soil and show up at local grocers. Fresh peas, fava beans and snow peas are all available, but the vegetable that is probably most anticipated -- and one of this author's personal favorites -- is asparagus. With the advent of spring gourmands around the globe look forward to this luxurious vegetable. And though asparagus may be found in larger supermarkets at almost any time of the year, in off-season the price is usually high and its quality is often low. Interestingly, it takes three years before an asparagus plant can be harvested, and 6 to 8 years before it reaches its prime. Presently asparagus is at peak season and ripe for the picking, or at least buying; the season for harvesting asparagus runs from early March through mid-June.

Asparagus is a member of the lily family, which surprisingly also includes onions, leeks and garlic -- all of which are in season. Plants in the lily family are also related to various grasses. In fact, asparagus is referred to in the dialects of 18th and 19th century cookbooks as sparagrass or sparrowgrass. The name, asparagus, actually originates from ancient Greek meaning "to sprout" or "shoot up". It was initially cultivated in the Eastern Mediterranean more than 2000 years ago; the ancient Greeks and Romans considered it a delicacy. Californian asparagus was first planted in the Stockton area during the mid-1860's and has thrived ever since. Today California produces more than 70 percent of American asparagus, and in April of each year Stockton holds its annual asparagus festival. Another major festival paying homage to this elegant grass, The National Asparagus Festival, is held each June in Shelby, Michigan -- Michigan is our country's second largest asparagus producer. This spring will mark the 26th year that Michigan has staged this event. At these festivals one can indulge in such delicacies as asparagus soup, pie, and even asparagus flavored ice cream.

While white asparagus has been a common vegetable in much of Europe for quite some time, it is a relative newcomer to being readily available in North America. Green or purple tipped asparagus are the most common varieties in the US, but in the last few years the European white variety has also been made available locally. Both types are of equal quality, only the color is different. White asparagus is obtained by covering the stalks with soil as they grow, this deters the development of chlorophyll which, in turn, keeps the stalks white.

Not surprisingly, as with most green vegetables, asparagus not only tastes good but also is extremely good for you. Asparagus is at the top of the list of vegetables that supply folic acid. A member of the vitamin B complex, folic acid is necessary for blood cell formation and growth, and also aids in the prevention of liver disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, asparagus also contains a high level of glutathione, which is one of the body's most potent cancer fighters. And besides being a good source of potassium, very low in sodium and having virtually no cholesterol, asparagus is also extremely low in calories -- on average there are only about 4 calories in a single spear.

Asparagus lends itself well to almost any cooking technique; it may be steamed, poached, sauteed, fried, or even grilled. By far though, the simplest way to cook asparagus is to steam or poach it, this will allow it's natural flavor to pervade. It may then be served hot, cold, or at room temperature and simply drizzled with melted butter, fresh squeezed lemon juice or light vinaigrette.

To prepare asparagus for cooking, gently bend the stalk until it snaps, it should break just above the point were the white end gives way to pale green; discard the fibrous end. For thick stalks with tough skin simply peel off the very first outer layer with an ordinary vegetable peeler.

When purchasing asparagus, choose stalks that are firm and have tightly closed buds. The thickness of the stalk makes no difference -- thin or thick they can both be tender and sweet as long as they are fresh. Its color should be bright green with possible hints of purple; white asparagus should be pearl white with no browning. Discoloration or fading usually indicates that it is not fresh. To store fresh asparagus, stand it up in a jar or bowl with its ends in about an inch of water, as one would with flowers in a vase. This provided water will keep your refrigerated asparagus fresh for up to a week.

Grilled Asparagus with Aioli
Serves 4
1-1/4 pounds asparagus
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup aioli

Preheat a grill to medium-hot. Trim the asparagus by snapping away the pale white end, and if desired peel it with a vegetable peeler. Lay the asparagus on a large platter and drizzle it with the olive oil and sprinkle it with the slat and pepper. Gently lay the asparagus on the preheated grill perpendicular to the direction of the grate on the grill. Cook the asparagus for 5 minutes, turn the asparagus often; it should be cooked through but still be slightly al dente. Place the aioli in a small bowl in the center a large platter and surround it with the grilled asparagus. If desired, drizzle with fresh squeezed lemon juice.

Makes 2 cups
6-10 peeled garlic cloves
1 tablespoon cold water
The juice of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 egg yolks
2 cups olive oil

Combine the garlic, water, lemon juice and salt in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. Add the egg yolks and continue to process until the yolks become frothy and much lighter in color. With the machine running, begin to pour the olive oil through the feeder tube in a thin steady stream until all of the oil is incorporated into the aioli.

Store the aioli in a refrigerated and covered container for up to 3 days.

Risotto with Asparagus and Gorgonzola Cheese
Yield: 3-4 servings
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1/4 cup minced onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
3-1/2 cups hot chicken stock or vegetable stock
1/2 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

Heat the butter or olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepot. Add the onion and garlic and saute them until they are translucent. Pour in the rice and stir it until it is fully coated with the butter or olive oil.

Add the white wine and stir the rice, while it is simmering, until almost all of the liquid is absorbed into the rice. Begin to add the hot stock in 1/2 cup increments. Allow the rice to absorb almost all of the liquid after each 1/2 cup addition before adding the next; stir the rice throughout the entire process. Continue to add the hot stock until 3 cups are added and absorbed into the rice.

Add the asparagus along with the remaining 1/2 cup stock and the salt and pepper. Gently stir the rice and asparagus until almost all of the liquid is absorbed.

Stir in the crumbled Gorgonzola cheese. For a more pungent blue cheese flavor sprinkle a little extra on top just before serving. Serve as an appetizer or a main course.

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