In Praise of Asparagus….

This member of the lily family is top on my list of favourite vegetables at this time of the year. Easy to cook and delicious, it will remain a mainstay on our family table, as a treat for a quick weekday supper or part of a weekend repast with a few good friends, from now until mid-summer.

How do I love them? Let me count the ways….

They are great simply stir-fried. Cut a bunch of asparagus into bite-sized lengths. Melt a dab of butter in a skillet or a wok. Add the asparagus and toss until well-coated. Splash in a dash of stock; cover and cook for about a minute. Drop in a teaspoon or two of minced garlic and stir for another minute. Season with salt and pepper and serve over or folded into a simple pasta with freshly grated parmesan. A delicious and healthy supper ready in less than 15 minutes. To make it more substantial, add cooked chicken, shrimp, a few fresh herbs - the variations are only limited by your imagination.

Another one of my family’s favourites is stir-fried peppered beef with asparagus. Start by cutting one bunch of asparagus spears on a bias into 2-inch lengths. Put them in some cold water for a few minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Peel and thinly slice one large shallot. Mince about two cloves of garlic.

Cut a 12 oz. to 1 lb. piece of sirloin steak, about into 2-inch long finger-thick pieces. Place in a mixing bowl and add a tablespoon of cornstarch and a generous amount of fresh coarsely ground black pepper - at least 2 teaspoons - and toss until well coated.

Heat some oil in a heavy skillet or a wok over medium high heat until very hot and sear the steak for about 1 to 2 minutes on each side until golden but still about medium rare. Set beef aside and add shallots and garlic to the skillet. Stir briefly and splash with a swig of brandy or sherry to deglaze the pan. Add asparagus and toss until well coated with pan juices. Add about one tablespoon of chicken stock or water; cover and steam for one minute.

Meanwhile, mix a sauce with 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce and one of dark soya sauce.

Return the beef to the pan; add sauce mixture and stirfry briefly until sauce is thickened. Serve with steamed rice or over noodles. It will feed two to four. And if you prefer seafood, you can substitute prawns and scallops for the beef.

Asparagus are of course also perfect for the barbie: Coat a handful of asparagus spears with some toasted sesame oil. Season with salt and pepper and put it on the grill for about 2 to 3 minutes before everything else is ready. When the colour of the asparagus begins to deepen into a brilliant green, turn them over for a minute then serve. They'll be sweet, succulent, nutty and finger-licking good (that is if, like me, you love to just pick them up and eat them out of hand). If there's any left over, toss them with a few wedges of tomatoes and some sliced purple onions in a mustard vinaigrette the next day. I recommend this for an al fresco lunch with a crusty hunk of bread and a solid 20 minutes of daydreaming.

When buying asparagus, pick stalks that are firm, bright green with tight tips that are not dried out or wilted. I prefer ones that are no thicker than my little finger although the thicker ones can be very good braised. If the base of the stalks are fibrous, peel them before use or trim them off and use for soup. Asparagus will store quite well wrapped loosely in a plastic bag for 3 to 5 days. Look for local asparagus in the Market between May and June.

Asparagus is low in calories, fat and cholesterol free, a good source of Iron, Magnesium and Zinc, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Folate, Phosphorus, Potassium, Copper, Manganese and Selenium. [reference: nutritiodata.self.com]

RECIPES:

Asparagus Mimosa

Chilled Pan-Roasted Asparagus Yogurt Soup