Spring food columns about asparagus are as routine as the appearance of asparagus itself. Each year in late March or early April, stalks begin popping up from asparagus patches all over northeast Kansas. There it is, right on schedule, begging to be eaten. As a fan, I can't help but hold forth.
Moreover, this year the calendar of religious holidays favored asparagus-lovers, so that fresh, local asparagus could be included in the Passover and Easter celebrations.
Asparagus is particularly delectable just now, when the stalks are first beginning to emerge. Early in the season and freshly picked, the spears are tender enough to eat uncooked. It's not unusual at my house for a portion of the picked asparagus not to make it back to the house.
Having a perennial supply of fresh asparagus has given me fairly militant views on how asparagus should be cooked. Less is definitely better, and as little as possible is best. If the asparagus is tender, a light steaming that ends just before the al dente stage is optimal. Anything more and the fresh flavor of the asparagus will be replaced by the distinct, musky taste of cooked asparagus.
The cut ends can be preserved to cook in soups, souffles and the like, but the tender spears and tips should never be overcooked. If you bend the spear slightly, you'll be able to feel where the tender part of the spear ends. Snap there, and reserve the tougher part for other uses.
While asparagus is imbued with a wonderful flavor, it also works well with vinaigrettes, cheeses and other complementary ingredients. The following marinated asparagus dish is more like a salad than a side dish, but it works with either formal or casual meals. The recipe is from Victoria Wise's "Gardener's Community Cookbook."
It calls for using just the asparagus tips, but the tender part of the spear can be marinated intact as well. For the dressing, select a store-bought herbed vinegar that is as sweet or sour as you prefer.
Marinated asparagus with honey-herb dressing
8 ounces asparagus tips, steamed 2 minutes
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced and separated into rings
3/4 cup honey-herb dressing
1 head red leaf lettuce, torn into bits, washed and spun dry
Place the asparagus, bell pepper and onion in a shallow dish. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
To serve, combine the dressed vegetables and lettuce in a serving bowl. Toss gently. Makes 4 servings.
1/4 cup herbed vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and whisk to mix. Use right away or store in the refrigerator up to overnight.