The Rite of Spring
In the springtime, when a young man's fancy turns to baseball, mine turns to asparagus, that most regal (as evidenced by its crown-like tip) of all vegetables.
Unlike truffles, (autumn's thrill) which can only be afforded once or twice a year and are limited in their preparation, asparagus fits all budgets and palates; and the recipes are endless.
Soon asparagus will become ubiquitous in supermarkets and fruit and vegetable stands at a reasonable price. Over and over I restate a simple philosophy, "let nature dictate your menu": when food is in season, the selection is vast, quality is superior and the cost is low. Here are a few hints and suggestions.
NOTE: Canned or frozen asparagus should never be considered. In my opinion, when fresh asparagus are out of season, abstinence is a far wiser course.
SELECTING: Choose asparagus that have firm crisp stalks, and are moist at the root end, with tips that are compact and closed. To ensure even cooking, they should all be of the same diameter. I prefer the medium size, 5-6 asparagus per person depending upon size and the rest of the menu.
PREPARATION: Even the finest and freshest asparagus will be fibrous and tough at the root end. Hold an asparagus at the middle of the stalk in one hand. With the other hand, place your fingers at the root end of the stalk and bend the asparagus - it will snap at the natural point. Discard the bottom or reserve it to be used in a stock.
Starting about 4 inches below the top of the spear (depending upon the size and freshness) using a potato peeler, peal the stalk down to the end. Discard these peelings or reserve to be used in a stock. This will ensure evenness in cooking.
Bathe the peeled asparagus in cold water for 5 minutes. For upright cooking: (see below) gather the asparagus into a bundle; if needed, trim the root ends so that the lengths of all the asparagus are uniform. Loosely tie the asparagus around the center of the bundle.
BOILING/STEAMING: Up to this point, the Italians and French agree. To ensure international harmony, both methods of cooking are explained.
Italian method: the asparagus are partially boiled and partially steamed. The asparagus are cooked in an upright position in a special cooker that is tall and narrow, with a perforated liner that holds the spears upright and lifts out when the asparagus are cooked. While the lower spears are cooked in boiling water, the more tender upper spears and tips are steamed. Pour enough water in the asparagus cooker to cover the bottom 2 or 3 inches of the root ends. Bring the water to a boil, then place the tied bundle of asparagus into the boiling water, cover and reduce heat to a low boil to steam the asparagus for 5 to 10 minutes depending on the thickness of the asparagus and your preference. I prefer to cook asparagus till 'al dente' to maintain a firm-to-the bite consistency.
French method: place asparagus horizontally in enough boiling salted water to cover them. Cook uncovered for circa 10 minutes.
I have used both methods and the results are similar. For a simple preparation, they are best served warm with melted butter, salt and pepper. At room temperature serve them with balsamic vinegar or your favorite vinaigrette. You want it even simpler? Drizzle the best grade extra virgin olive oil over cooked asparagus and sprinkle with freshly ground pepper and salt.
Asparagi alla milanese
Asparagus Milano Style
Yield 4 portions
3 pounds asparagus
4 ounces freshly grated parmigiano reggiano
4 ounces unsalted butter
freshly grated black pepper to taste
1. cook the asparagus using one of the above methods.
2. while the asparagus are cooking fry the eggs in butter, don't over cook the eggs, cook till the white parts sets.
3. when the asparagus are cooked separate them into 4 equal portions, arrange them on a plate in a circle with the tips pointing toward the center.
4. sprinkle the asparagus with the parmigiano reggiano
5. place an egg in the center of the asparagus and drizzle with the butter that the eggs were cooked in, season with the pepper.
Note: a poached egg also works very well with recipe, drizzle some melted butter over the egg.
Risotto agli asparagi
Yield 4 portions
1 ½ pounds of asparagus
3 tablespoons plus 2 more tablespoons of unsalted butter
2 shallots or 1 leek
14 ounces Carnaroli or Aborio rice, imported from Italy
½ cup dry white wine at room temperature
1 ½ quarts vegetable broth, which includes the cooking water of the asparagus.
2 handfuls of freshly grated parmigiano reggiano, plus more to be passed at the table.
Freshly ground salt and white pepper to taste
1. peel and finely chop the shallots, if using leeks clean them well, leeks tend to have a lot of grit between their layers, then finely slice them.
2. cook the asparagus using one of the above methods, they should be al dente firm to the bite. Cut the tips into 1 ½ inch lengths, wrap them in aluminum foil to keep them warm.The rest of the stalk cut into 1/2 inch lengths.
3. bring the broth to a boil then lower to a simmer.
4. in a heavy bottomed wide pan melt 3 tablespoons of butter or use a mixture of half butter and half extra virgin olive oil.
5. add the shallots or leek and cook till softened and translucent.
6. add the rice and toast it by stirring to insure that's the kernels are well coated with the butter and shallot mixture, 1 minute or so.
7. add the wine, the rice will sizzle at this point, don't be alarmed.
8. when the alcohol has evaporated, (you can no longer smell the alcohol) start adding the broth one large ladle at a time and continue stirring over medium-low heat. Using this method, the rice will gently swell. Once most of the liquid has absorbed add another ladle and continue stirring.
About 10 minutes into this process add the reserved asparagus stalks and continue cooking as before. The risotto will be cooked in 18 to 20 minutes, the rice should be al dente.
NOTE: you may not need to use all the broth - (better to have more than not enough). Save the extra broth for another use.
9. remove the pan from the heat; at this point we will make the risotto creamy ( "mantecare" ) by adding the reserved 2 tablespoons of butter and the parmigiano reggiano, taste for salt at this time.
10. plate the risotto and decoratively arrange the reserved asparagus tips on top of the risotto, add the pepper.
By Daniel Pace, a Milano based semi-retired chef, culinary journalist and consultant and cooking instructor.