Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Asparagus, One Zillion Ways

This is the time of year when it's hard to resist eating asparagus at least once every single day. Sure, you can get it out-of-season for most of the year, but few things compare to the sensation of biting into a perfectly crisp, impossibly sweet spear of springtime asparagus just days (or hours!) from the ground. (This isn't locavoran snobbery, I swear: It's just that once you know what the good stuff tastes like, the so-so stuff seems like a waste of money. How many people do you know who will buy a supermarket tomato in the winter?) So far this week, I've had it three ways: As part of a simple cream sauce for fettuccine; in a silky, almost-vegan soup; and lightly braised in butter with oyster mushrooms (my favorite preparation so far). Eventually, surely, I'm going to get sick of all these fresh preparations and start turning to another favorite standby; for now, however, I'm happy to eat as much asparagus as my refrigerator can hold--then no more until next year, when it's available at the farmers markets and in my CSA box again.

First up: An improvised pasta-and-cream-sauce combo featuring asparagus just barely blanched, then briefly rewarmed in the sauce. First, I brought a pot of salted water to boil for the asparagus. While that was heating up, in another pan, I lightly sauteed half a chopped small yellow onion with a few cloves of thinly sliced garlic in about a tablespoon of butter over medium-low heat. Then I blanched the asparagus, removed it from the water to a strainer, and ran it under very cold water to stop the cooking (I left the water in the pot to use for pasta). Once the water came back to a boil, I added some more salt and tossed in the pasta. While that cooked, I added a splash of half-and-half, some chopped tarragon and flat-leaf parsley from the garden, and the asparagus into the pan with the onions and heated it through. Served over the pasta with a shower of Parmesan, it was filling, rich, and the essence of spring.

The second recipe, for "lemony asparagus soup," is adapted from the wonderful food blog Dishing Up Delights (as did the photo above). The only thing I changed was the addition of some garlic chives and their lovely purple flowers at the end. It would also be nice, hot or chilled, with a dollop of plain yogurt or cream fraiche.

Lemony Asparagus Soup

10 ounces (1 small bunch) asparagus, cut into 1/2-inch pieces with a few 3-inch tips reserved for garnish
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 cups low-sodium vegetable stock
One 1-inch wide strip of lemon zest, plus 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest for garnish (or more to taste)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Boil all of the asparagus until bright green and barely tender, about 2-3 minutes. Drain and transfer to the ice water to cool, then drain again. Set most of the tips aside from the rest of the cut up pieces.

Wipe out the saucepan. Add the olive oil and heat until shimmering. Add the sliced onion to the saucepan and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the chicken stock and lemon zest strip, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the asparagus pieces and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Discard the lemon zest strip.

Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender. Return the soup to the saucepan and stir in the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and reheat if necessary. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the asparagus tips and grated lemon zest. Serve hot or chilled.

Finally, the best preparation was the simplest of all--Bittman's butter-braised asparagus with oyster mushrooms, from his Minimalist column. Trusting Bittman, I followed it almost to the letter, except for the addition of a teaspoon or so of fresh marjoram (currently going nuts in my garden) along with the tarragon. I'm not usually a fan of oyster mushrooms, finding their delicate flavor and soft texture a little too subtle, but this dish--which renders the mushrooms simultaneously meaty and silken--was a revelation.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
7 ounces oyster mushrooms, trimmed and cut into 3/4-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1 1/4 -inch lengths
3 scallions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced (about 1/4 cup)
1/2 cup frozen peas
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Add mushrooms and a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir to coat mushrooms with butter. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.

Stir in asparagus, scallions and remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook for about 2 minutes if using pencil-thin asparagus, and up to 7 minutes for jumbos (until asparagus is al dente).

Stir in peas and tarragon; cover and cook about 2 minutes longer, until peas are heated through and asparagus is tender. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

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