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Put The Spring Back In Your Antipasto Step With Asparagus

Asparagus with olive oil and lemon. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Asparagus with olive oil and lemon. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Very few foods, if any, make an indelible impression on you, an impression that you remember 40 years later. But I do remember my first asparagus out of the ground, not bought in a supermarket but pulled by yours truly from the earth.

My first fascination with asparagus occurred in May 1970 in Louisville, Ky., while chatting with the father of a college buddy. A creek ran through their property and his wife had asked him to pick some asparagus by its bank. We strolled to the creek, he showed me how to pick them, and we ate them that night. It was the one of the first times I ever picked my vegetable then ate it, not counting tomatoes that my grandfather always grew.

Planting asparagus is easy, but there is a three-year gap between sowing and harvesting while the plants become established. During harvesting season a family of four would need 12 asparagus plants to feed them.

If you want to plant your own, you need to build a bed of soil about 6 inches above the surrounding earth and about 4 feet wide and as long as you want. The plant, though, does not grow well in hot and humid climates.

Creating a suitable planting bed involves a bit of work. The soil should be well-drained, and there should be plenty of surface area above the plants to encourage thick, succulent spears. The soil should also be dug deeply with organic matter and phosphate. Add some sand to the soil if it is not well-drained.

Seed is sown in early spring, either indoors or in a seed bed outdoors, and the young plants are grown carefully for the first year. Sandy, gritty soil should be spread on the surrounding soil. A top dressing of fertilizer containing nitrogen and potash should be applied after planting.

In the first year, it is desirable to build up a mat of heavy roots that will support many thick spears during the following spring. If you want to grow white asparagus, mound organic mulch over the asparagus beds.

Asparagus is harvested when the spears are about 4 inches above ground and 3 inches below. For the best taste, harvest them only one hour before they are needed for cooking.

Although asparagus appears year round in the supermarket, they deteriorate quickly after being picked and need to be kept cold. In supermarkets, make sure asparagus is refrigerated or standing upright in cold water basins. In farmers markets, asparagus should be sold on ice or, at the very least, in shade away from sunlight.

Asparagus with pistachios. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Asparagus with pistachios. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Look for asparagus spears that are firm with deep green shoots and slightly purple tips that are firmly closed and dense. Tips that appear to be separating are evidence of wilting from aging. Buy asparagus that are firm their entire length, not floppy or twisty. Asparagus with thick stalks are not any less good than thin-stalked asparagus, although most demanding cooks look for an ideal width of about a half inch.

Keep asparagus that has been bought by untying it so the spears are relatively loose and can breath, then wrap the bottom portion of the spears in a wet paper towel and keep in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Although asparagus will keep up to a week, its taste diminishes with each passing day, so best to eat it the day you buy it.

Prepare asparagus for cooking by cutting off the tough bottom half-inch of stalk and peel the skin off the bottom portion of the remaining stalk with a vegetable peeler. Asparagus is cooked quickly until crisp-tender, not limp.

Here are two quick and delicious ways to present asparagus. Make both at the same time and serve them on a pair of platters.

 

Asparagus With Olive Oil and Lemon

Makes 4 to 6 antipasto servings

Ingredients

1 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Freshly squeezed lemon juice for drizzling

1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Bring a large saucepan of water to a rolling boil over high heat then cook the asparagus until tender with just a slight crunch, about 6 minutes.

2. Drain and arrange on a serving platter. Sprinkle with olive oil, lemon juice and cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature.

Asparagus With Pistachios

Makes 4 to 6 antipasto servings

Ingredients

1 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed

3 tablespoons pistachios

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Bring a large saucepan of water to a rolling boil over high heat then cook the asparagus until tender with just a slight crunch, about 6 minutes. Drain.

2. In a sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat, then cook the asparagus, garlic, and anchovies until the anchovies have completely melted, about 3 minutes. Remove to a serving plate.

3. In the pan in which you cooked the asparagus, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat, then cook the pistachios for 3 minutes, stirring, then sprinkle on top of the asparagus and serve.

Main photo: Asparagus With Olive Oil and Lemon. Credit: Clifford A. Wright



Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).

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