Eating Well: Asparagus tips

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Maine’s asparagus season is off and running.

Grocery stores and farmers markets have displays of the green spears with their tight purplish tips that Marcel Proust described in “Swann’s Way” as “delicately painted in little strokes of mauve and azure.” Proust, of course, was remembering the French asparagus of his childhood, but Maine’s looks just as colorful.

When Julia Child, fresh from France, taught us how to cook asparagus in the early 1960s (“Mastering the Art of French Cooking,”Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), she told us to separate the tips (called pointes d’asperges in French) from the butt ends by bending each spear until it snaps — usually at the halfway point. Save the thick bits to use in soup. The slim asparagus tips are more tender than the thick part of the stalks and can be cooked faster.

Using a small sharp knife, Julia Child would peel the asparagus from the thick end down to the tightly closed tip of each spear, tie the tips in bundles, and boil them until they are tender. The cooking time varies with the thickness of the asparagus; plan on 12 to 15 minutes. Leave the pan uncovered to keep the asparagus bright green.

In “The Pleasures of Cooking for One,” Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, Judith Jones (Julia Child’s editor), wrote about one of her passions — the bacon, lettuce and asparagus sandwich. This is like a BLT with cooked asparagus tips replacing the sliced tomatoes. Along the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts, this sandwich is a local favorite and is called a BLA.

Jones writes that she learned to roast her asparagus from Nina Simonds, the expert on health-giving Asian foods, and that after trying it the first time, she has never turned back.

Here are Simonds’ recipe and tips on cooking asparagus from a few other fine cooks.

Roasted Asparagus with a Sesame Vinaigrette

From “A Spoonful of Ginger” by Nina Simonds, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Simonds writes that she was introduced to roasted asparagus in Italy and that although the preparation is unknown in China, she is confident that her master chef mentors would approve of the following dish.

2 pounds fresh asparagus, tough woody stems snapped off
2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
Sesame Vinaigrette
1/3 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons clear rice vinegar
1/2 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley (optional)

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Rinse the asparagus stalks and drain on paper towels. Spread the stalks out on a cookie sheet. Combine the sesame and olive oils and brush the asparagus with the oil, then sprinkle the salt over the stalks.

Roast the asparagus 10 to 12 minutes, or until they are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. Alternatively, you may steam the asparagus for 4 to 5 minutes until tender. Arrange the asparagus on a serving plate.

Mix together the ingredients for the Sesame Vinaigrette and drizzle the dressing over the asparagus. Sprinkle the minced parsley on top. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Six servings.

Grilled Asparagus with Lemon

From “Mediterranean Women Stay Slim, Too,” by Melissa Kelly with Eve Adamson, Collins, 2006.

Kelly likes to grill vegetables, because it brings out their natural flavors. A little olive oil before grilling and a little bit more with fresh lemon juice as a dressing is all this tender vegetable needs, she says, and also recommends this as a good way to grill zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper halves or skewered mushrooms.

2 pounds fresh asparagus, stems trimmed
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon

Preheat the grill to medium. Drizzle the asparagus with 1/4 cup of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Grill the asparagus on all sides over medium heat. Be careful not to overcook.

Arrange the asparagus on a platter and drizzle with the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil and the lemon juice. Serve immediately.

Six servings.

Parmesan Roasted Asparagus

From “Barefoot Contessa Family Style,” by Ina Garten, Clarkson Potter, 2002.

Garten often serves roasted asparagus in the classic Italian style: topped with a fried egg.

2 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus, (about 30 large)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 lemons cut into wedges, for serving

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

If the stalks of asparagus are thick, peel the bottom half of each. Lay them in a single layer on a sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, until tender. Sprinkle with the Parmesan and return to the oven for another minute. Serve with lemon wedges.

Six servings.

Asparagus with Prosciutto

From “The Romagnolis’ Table,” by Margaret and G. Franco Romagnoli, Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1975.

Here is asparagus in its most elegant guise: fresh stalks are cooked al dente, then wrapped in thin slices of prosciutto and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.

2 pounds asparagus
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (for the water)
1/4 pound prosciutto
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
8 tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Break off the root ends of the asparagus stalk by stalk and discard them. Wash thoroughly and put in boiling salted water to cover. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook about 5 minutes, or until a fork goes through the base of the stalk easily. Lift out with tongs and drain on paper towels.

When they are cool enough to handle, divide the stalks into 6 even bundles. Wrap each bundle in a couple of very, very thin slices of prosciutto, securing them with a toothpick. Butter a cookie sheet and line the bundles up on it, sprinkle them with the Parmesan cheese, and put in a hot oven (400 degrees) for about 3 minutes, or until the cheese has melted. Melt the butter in a saucepan, and when the bundles come out of the oven, put them on a platter, pour the melted butter over them, and serve.

Six servings.

Sidebar Elements

Susan Lovell and her husband John, a great cook, live near Pat’s Meat Market & Cafe in Portland, with a hungry Maine coon cat and a poodle who eats cat food. An eighth-generation Mainer, she likes shellfish, steak, baked beans, cole slaw, corn bread, blueberry pie and Moxie. Her great great-grandfather, from Wellfleet, Mass., and his cousin founded Boston’s Union Oyster House and she really likes oysters and Guinness. And Boston cream pie.