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Living - March 21, 2008

Epicure: Don't spare the asparagus

by Jacqui Love Marshall

Asparagus is one of my favorite vegetables and they are beginning to show up in produce departments although their primary season is April through June. The taste, texture, color and beauty of fresh asparagus is like no other.

More importantly, asparagus is one of the most nutritionally well-balanced vegetables available. Asparagus is the lead provider of folic acid among vegetables. It tops nearly all other produce in the quantity and range of nutrients it supplies, i.e., potassium, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C, and thiamin. Asparagus contains no fat or cholesterol, is high in fiber yet low in sodium as well as in calories, usually less than 4 calories per spear.

A member of the Lily family (along with onions and garlic), asparagus grows as spears from a crown that is planted in sandy soils. Asparagus was first cultivated in Greece about 2,500 years ago. In fact, asparagus is a Greek word, meaning stalk or shoot. The Greeks believed asparagus was a herbal medicine which provided cleansing and healing.

The best asparagus will have firm spears with closed, neat tips. Select spears with uniform diameter so the spears will cook evenly and at the same time. Despite assumptions to the contrary, the larger diameter spears are the more tender ones.

Keep fresh asparagus cold and covered until ready to cook. Trim the stems 1/4 inch and wash in lukewarm water two to three times. Wrap a moist paper towel around the stem ends and store in a moisture-proof bag. For best quality, refrigerate and use within two to three days.

Asparagus may be cooked in a variety of ways: boiled, steamed, microwaved, stir-fried, etc. Here are some simple preparation techniques:

* Stovetop: Cook asparagus in a saucepan in a small amount of boiling water until tender. Fresh asparagus will be tender in 5-8 minutes.

* Pan: Place two strips of folded aluminum on the bottom and up the sides of the pan, extending over the edges. Bring water to a boil; add asparagus and cook, uncovered, until crisp-tender, 3-5 minutes. Use the foil strips to gently lift the spears to a serving dish.

* Double boiler or asparagus pot: Bundle the stalks with string or a band of foil; stand them upright in the pot, with the tips extending 1 inch or more above the boiling, salted water. Cover and cook until tender, 5-8 minutes.

* Stir-fry: Cut spears diagonally in 1/2-inch pieces, leaving tips whole. Stir-fry pieces in butter or hot oil, in a skillet or wok at medium high heat. Stir constantly until tender-crisp, 3-5 minutes.

* Microwave: With fresh asparagus, place 1 pound in a microwavable baking dish or serving bowl. Add about 1/4 cup water and cover tightly. Microwave at 100 percent power 4-7 minutes, stirring or turning halfway through cooking time.

My favorite way to enjoy asparagus is steamed and garnished with butter and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. This simple method allows you to savor the full flavor of the asparagus. However, asparagus can be the primary ingredient in an appetizer or entrée. Here are a couple of recipes to try. Whichever way you serve them, don't spare the asparagus!

Jacqui lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at jlovemarshall@yahoo.com.

Recipes

Bacon-Wrapped Asparagus (makes 16-24 spears)

Asparagus and Crab Salad (4-6 servings)

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