Asparagus

Once a harbinger of spring, asparagus is much too available now. Off-season asparagus, whether forced up from soil or flown in from far away, tends to be bland and tough -- barely reminiscent of the fresh real thing. So spare yourself some disappointment in December: Roll your cart right by those long-stemmed beauties from Brazil and wait until native field-grown asparagus is in stores.

WHEN TO BUY
March through June and October through November

NUTRITION FACTS
Serving: 5 spears
Calories: 22
Fiber: 1.7 grams
Fat: .5 gram
Protein: 2.9 grams
A good source of:Vitamin C; Folic Acid; Vitamin E

RECIPES
Use slender asparagus in stir-fries or steamed, chilled and tossed with vinaigrette for salads. Use thick asparagus as a simple side dish, steamed and drizzled with lemon and butter. Or for risotto seasoned with Parmesan and fresh mint. Or puree it with steamed potatoes and vegetable or chicken broth for soup.

HOW TO GET KIDS TO TRY IT
Introduce kids to asparagus dipped in peanut sauce or finely, finely chopped and tossed with pasta with butter and cheese.

HOW TO CHOOSE
The asparagus is good if the

  • Stalks are firm and straight.
  • Tips are compact and closed tight like a bud.
  • Color is vibrant, the stalks deep green and the tips green or splashed with purple.

HOW TO STORE
Raw: Place the asparagus in a tall drinking glass or tumbler. Add an inch or two of cold water. Refrigerate for up to three days, changing the water daily

Cooked: Seal in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to two days.

HOW TO PREPARE

  • Rinse the tips with cold water to get out any grit that may be lodged in them.
  • Trim away the tough ends of the stalks.
  • If the remaining lower third or so of the stalks is rough or woody, use a vegetable peeler to pare away the outer layer. The asparagus will be stringy or tough if you leave that layer in place.

Now they're ready to be steamed or boiled.

To steam whole spears:

  • Choose asparagus of similar length and thickness so all of the spears will be done at the same time.
  • Place 1/4 inch of water in a skillet or wide saucepan. Bring to a simmer.
  • Add the prepared asparagus, lying flat, in a single layer if possible. Cover and steam until it turns bright green and bends easily when you pick it up at the base and pull the tip back toward you, 1 1/2 to 7 minutes depending on thickness.

To steam whole spears in the microwave:

  • Stand the spears upright in a two-cup measuring cup or any microwaveable glass tall enough to hold them. Add 1/4 inch of water.
  • Drape a damp paper towel over them.
  • Microwave on full power for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, depending on how many spears you have and how thick they are. If they're not done after the first cooking cycle, return them to the microwave for 1 minute at a time until they are, keeping in mind that the spears will continue to cook for a short time once they're out of the oven. The asparagus is done when it's bright green and bends easily when you pull it back toward you. (If it droops, it's overdone.)

To steam chopped asparagus on the stove:

  • Put a rack or a steamer basket on the bottom of a large saucepan.
  • Add water until it almost touches the rack. Bring the water to a boil.
  • Add the asparagus, cover the pot and steam until the asparagus is bright green and crisp but cooked in the center, 1 1/2 to 7 minutes.

To steam chopped asparagus in the microwave:

  • Place the prepared asparagus in a microwaveable bowl.
  • Add 1/4 inch water. Cover the bowl with a plate or damp paper towel.
  • Microwave on full power for 2 minutes. Let rest 1 minute before lifting the plate or paper towel and testing for doneness. If not done, return to the oven at full power for 1 minute more.
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