Gulf Coast Cooking

Asparagus is underappreciated

For some reason asparagus is under-appreciated.

It is delicious, not terribly expensive, easy to prepare, and as versatile as a vegetable can be. It also has the reputation of being a classy side dish, so what's not to like?

There are two common choices when it comes to asparagus.

The green kind we most often find at the grocery store, and the less common, but perhaps even more delicious, white variety. What's the difference you might ask?

The white variety, that is so popular in Germany and France, never sees the light of day. It is grown in a row that is piled high with dirt, and just when the tip of the plant starts to break the surface, it is harvested.

There also is purple asparagus and wild asparagus, but those are seldom seen in grocery stores.

Yes, there is a difference in taste as well. The white asparagus has no chlorophyll, and there is a difference in texture. If the stalks seem woody, they may need to be peeled.

Steaming is a good way to cook asparagus, and there are many ways to serve asparagus.

Classically it is served with a hollandaise sauce, or a cold mayonnaise, but it also goes well as an omelet filling, au gratin, in a salad or even with scrambled eggs. If you are in a hurry, serve steamed asparagus with a little melted butter, and a grating of Parmesan cheese. It is hard to go wrong with a vegetable this delicious.

BASIC GRILLED ASPARAGUS

This recipe can be accomplished on an outside grill, a gas grill built into your kitchen range, or as a last resort, in a cast iron grilling pan with raised ridges. If the asparagus is not absolutely fresh, cut the tough stems off. This can also be done by bending the stalk till it beaks, it should break just in the right place. Toss the asparagus in olive oil, salt and pepper, then grill over a hot flame until just tender. The asparagus should have grill marks, but like almost everything else, if you over cook it, it is much reduced in taste and texture. Serve at once.

SHRIMP, PASTA AND ASPARAGUS

This is a very simple dish and can be made with any kind of pasta you like, but the wider noodles seem to

do best. Fettuccine, linguine, or pappardelle would all be good choices.

1/2 pound large, peeled shrimp

1 pound wide noodles

1 bundle asparagus

Butter, olive oil

Salt and white pepper

Rice vinegar

Use the widest pasta you can find, pappardelle is preferred if you can find it, cook to package directions, drain, toss in a little olive oil and butter mixture and set aside. Season the shrimp, then toss in very hot oil for just 2 minutes, the shrimp should be well colored and look vibrant. Steam the asparagus in salted water, with1/4 cup rice vinegar, until fork tender. If you have an Asian style steamer, use it instead, but the steam will cook the asparagus very quickly, so don't overdo it. Plate the pasta, add shrimp and asparagus, season as needed, give it a good toss, and serve at once. A little Parmigiano-Reggiano would not hurt a thing.

ASPARAGUS AU GRATIN

1 bundle asparagus

5 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

4 cups hot milk

2 pinches salt

1 pinch nutmeg

1 egg yolk

1 cup grated gruyere cheese

Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees Cook the asparagus in salted, simmering water until just tender. Remove, drain and place in a buttered oven-proof dish. If you want to make it just a bit fancy, use individual ramekins for your guests. Melt the butter in a pan, sift in the flour, and stir with a wooden spoon until well incorporated, cook until it just starts to take on some color. Whisk in the hot milk a cup at a time, make sure there are no lumps. Turn the heat off, whisk in the egg yolk and then the Gruyere. Make sure it is smooth. Pour over the asparagus and bake until bubbly and hot and lightly browned. This would be delightful with a cold glass of gruner veltliner.

Julian Brunt, who comes from a family with deep Southern roots, writes the Coast Cooking column that appears in Wednesday's Sun Herald and for a blog at sunherald.com. He is a food writer and photographer with regular columns also in magazines.

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