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An Asparagus Festival
By Joyce Goldstein

When spring is on the horizon, I anticipate no other vegetable with such great enthusiasm as asparagus. I am not alone. In Italy, especially the Veneto region, everyone goes crazy over the tender stalks. They appear on the menu every day in every restaurant, trattoria, osteria and home until the season is officially declared over on June 13, the Feast of Saint Anthony. Tavagnacco, in the Friuli region, has a giant agricultural asparagus cooperative (Agricoop Asparagi), and is the home of a white asparagus festival during the last two weeks in May. The best-known white asparagus in the Veneto region comes from Bassano, which is also famous for its pottery.

A member of the lily family, asparagus is at its best from March through early May. I enjoy it so much that when it's in season, I cook it almost every day. Asparagus has been a symbol of luxury, elegant in appearance, and often richly sauced, yet it's best eaten with the fingers. You can hold it daintily, dip it into the sauce of your choice, and not look indelicate as you take a delicious bite.

The most common asparagus is a brilliant green, with slightly purple tips. There is also a purple asparagus, but it turns green when cooked. At some markets you can now buy the white asparagus, so beloved by Europeans that they hold annual festivals in its honor. The white variety is more expensive due to the extra effort it takes to cultivate it. As they grow taller, the stalks must be covered with mounds of earth to prevent them from seeing daylight, thus prohibiting them from turning their natural green.


Tender Tips

Look for asparagus with firm stalks and tightly closed tips. An open tip means that the asparagus is past its prime and will taste grassy and bitter, not sweet. In fact, it's sweetest if you cook it as soon as you buy it. However you may store asparagus in the fridge for a day or so. The best way to keep it is to cut off an inch of stalk and stand the asparagus in a container with about 2 inches of water, then cover with a plastic bag. This keeps the asparagus more juicy and flexible.

Asparagus has a natural breaking point. Snap each stalk and discard the woody bottoms. Pencil thin stalks need no peeling and can probably be trimmed to uniform lengths with a knife, as they have not developed any woodiness. However, medium to large asparagus will profit from peeling. Place the asparagus flat on the counter top, hold the tip gently, and peel from mid-stem down to the bottom with a sharp vegetable peeler.

Ideally, you want the firm stalks and delicate tips of the asparagus to cook perfectly at the same time. The most foolproof way to cook asparagus is to steam it standing up. Tie it in one fat bundle, place it in two to three inches of boiling water, and cook covered, so the tops steam and the bottoms cook. Depending upon the thickness of the stalks it will take from five minutes for pencil-thin asparagus, to ten or 12 minutes for jumbo stalks. A point of a knife will penetrate the stalks easily when they are done.

If you lack the proper pan for vertical cooking, bring a wide deep saucepan of water to a boil. Drop in the asparagus and when they are tender but still crisp (timing will vary), remove with tongs or a wide wire skimmer, then transfer to a bowl of cold water. Plunging the asparagus in cold water will stop the cooking process and set the color. Be sure to drain all asparagus well and pat dry before serving.

White asparagus should be peeled completely before cooking to become tender. It must be boiled in water, with salt and a bit of sugar and lemon juice, and it takes longer to cook than the green variety. At the thickest part of the stalk, keep testing for doneness with the point of a knife. Two pounds of untrimmed asparagus will feed four as a first course, and six as a side dish.


Well-dressed Asparagus

Although melted butter or hollandaise used to be the most common sauces for this elegant vegetable, today we know that extra virgin olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar, or orange and lemon juice can make asparagus shine. Add some toasted pinenuts or hazelnuts and you'll have a most festive dish.


Try Joyce Goldstein's amazing asparagus recipes:

Asparagus Risotto with Gremolata
Asparagus and Red Potatoes with Romesco Sauce

 

About Joyce Goldstein

Joyce Goldstein is a consultant to the restaurant and food industries. For 12 years she was chef/owner of the ground- breaking, award-winning Mediterranean restaurant SQUARE ONE in San Francisco. In addition, she taught cooking for 18 years. Joyce is the author of many cookbooks, including Sephardic Flavors - Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean, Cucina Ebraica, Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen, and The Mediterranean Kitchen.

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