Asparagus Is No Longer A Veggie Only Our Grandparents Ate
Asparagus, first cousin to the lily, is one of the most maligned vegetables I know. And there are reasons for this. The tender green stalk was mistreated by many of our parents and grandparents. They boiled it until all that remained on our plates was a stringy, slimy, ill-smelling, grayish mess.
Their intentions were good. After all, who wouldn't want to include this nutritionally packed treasure in their family's diet? Asparagus is fat and cholesterol free, rich in fiber and weighs in with less than 4 calories a spear. It provides calcium, potassium and B vitamins in abundance.
Properly prepared, it can also be delicious. A well cooked spear is bright green, still crunchy in the center and tastes clean and slightly sweet.The best ways to bring it to this state are gentle steaming or quick stir frying.
But, I'm getting ahead of myself. The first step is buying the freshest asparagus. Look for stalks that are firm and straight with tightly closed tips and a deep green color. When you bring it home trim the bottoms of the stalks and store it in your refrigerator standing in an inch or two of fresh, clean water. It should keep well for two or three days this way, provided you don't let the water run out. It's very important to keep it cold since the quality and flavor can deteriorate quickly.
A tender treat
Asparagus grows from crowns which produce the stalks in the spring and early summer. The vegetable relies on spring rains and warming nights to feed its rapid growth which can reach 8 or 10 inches on a good day. The speed of its development allows it to remain tender despite it's woody nature.
Chefs disagree about which stalks are the most tender. Some favor the thick, well developed asparagus while others (like me) prefer the sweet, pencil thin variety. The thinner stalks cook more quickly which translates into better color and sweeter flavor.
When it's time to prepare you'll want to break off the fibrous bottom of the stalk. The easiest way is to hold the asparagus by the base with one hand and on the tip with the other and bend it gently. The stalk should snap at the point that the tender, sweet portion meets the tougher base. Don't be upset if you loose a third of the stalk. Some times it happens and the discards can be tossed into a compost heap or left in an outside feeder for the bunnies and the birds to enjoy.
Ways to prepare asparagus
Some of the simplest ways to prepare asparagus are some of the best. Here are a few suggestions:
- Add it to a creamy pasta dish like Alfredo. Cut the asparagus
on the bias and steam it for three or four minutes. Then simply
toss with the pasta and sauce.
- Roast it in a very hot oven (500 degrees) for seven to 10
minutes, depending on thickness. It should be lightly browned
when it's ready. Sprinkle on a little coarse salt or dip in some
- Steam whole spears quickly. Tie the spears together loosely
and stand the bunch upright in two inches of boiling water.
You'll need a tall pot so you can cover the asparagus. It should
be ready in about four minutes.
- Stir fry half-inch pieces quickly in some peanut oil and
sprinkle with kosher salt and sesame seeds. Or try cooking it in
olive oil and sprinkle on a little lemon juice. You can tell the
asparagus is ready when it turns a vivid green.
- If you want to make asparagus into a main dish consider serving it in a risotto. The creamy rice and savory cheese are a perfect compliment to its crisp texture and sweet flavor.
Pressure Cooker Asparagus Risotto
The purist might thumb her nose at using a pressure cooker to make this variation of the Italian classic. But who has hours to make it the old fashioned way, especially for a week night dinner? Making risotto is one of the best applications around for a pressure cooker. But, before you begin, be sure to read all the instructions that came with your cooker and follow the safety precautions.
Prepare the asparagus:
Wash it well in plain water. Hold each stalk at the base and at the tip and bend gently. It should break near the bottom. Discard the bottom part of the vegetable. It will be tough.
- Over low heat saute the onion in the olive oil until
translucent (10-15 minutes). Add the rice and stir until it is
coated and translucent around the edges. Add the garlic and stir
until fragrant (1 or 2 minutes).
- Add the stock and orange juice and seal the cooker with its
lid. Raise the heat to medium and set the pressure valve for 10
pounds. When the valve begins to rock, cook the risotto for seven
more minutes before removing from the heat and allowing the
pressure to dissipate.
- When you can open the cooker without burning yourself, add the asparagus and thyme. Stir quickly and replace the top. Allow the risotto to sit for about five more minutes before transferring to a serving bowl and stirring in the cheese.
Pass more parmesan and a pepper mill with the risotto. Taste before salting since the cheese and the broth can be very salty.
Two to three as a main course or four to six as a side dish.