Spears of Spring

The lovely lavender blossoms of chives and luscious purple-green stalks of Northwest asparagus have been traditional harbingers of spring for eons. But it doesn’t get old for me.

It begins with the quality. Even though many of us have already indulged in California’s crop, few would disagree that it’s only after the rich, deeply hued, purple-headed stalks from our Pacific Northwest fields arrive that we can be totally satisfied.

Well, ready up the butter sauce. The harvest is in full swing. Of course, there are plenty of simple yet elegant ways to enjoy this springtime veggie. Take Asparagus Flemish, a variation on a theme of melted butter. Simply stir 2 hard-cooked, sieved eggs and 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice into half a cup of melted butter. Season with a little salt and pepper and drizzle over a batch of cooked asparagus spears and you’ve got one more evening wrapped up.

Another night, go with an even more classic variation: Asparagus Polonaise. For each pound of asparagus, combine 2 hard-cooked eggs with 2 tablespoons chopped parsley and sprinkle over the cooked asparagus. Saute 1/4 cup of bread crumbs in 6 tablespoons of melted butter until the crumbs are golden brown, then pour the sauce over the warm asparagus.

Of course, long before those lovely stalks enter your kitchen, you should be thinking about time and storage. Even if you’ve ferreted out tight-budded stalks with green extending at least two-thirds of the way down, and cross-examined the poor produce person up one row and down the other as to the source and timing of his or her shipment, there’s one more important element to keep in mind. Asparagus contains sugar that begins turning to starch as soon as it’s picked; refrigeration slows down the conversion, but time marches on.

Consider this: Asparagus stored at 32 degrees holds two weeks before losing half its sugar; at 68 degrees, two days; and at 86 degrees, half the sugar is gone after only half a day.

So shop for your asparagus where you know there’s a fast turnover or you won’t be getting the sweetest and most flavorful experience.

As far as preparation goes, steaming is a dandy method. But it’s not the only method by a long shot. These days, folks are discovering a multitude of methods, from roasting and grilling to a fast browning in your wok. Here are a few more ideas to help you celebrate the season.

Asparagus and Chives

Makes about 6 servings

What says “spring” more naturally than these two harbingers of the season?

1 (14-ounce) can double-strength chicken broth

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup chopped fresh chives

1 1/2 pounds very fresh asparagus, peeled, and the tough fibrous lower portion of the stalk trimmed away

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Garnishes: Grated zest of 1 lemon

In a large skillet that is wide enough to accommodate the asparagus, bring the broth, oil and chives to a boil. Add the asparagus, cover and quickly return the broth to a boil. Remove the lid and simmer just until the asparagus is tender but still crisp (it will continue to cook when removed from the pot), about 7 minutes. Remove the stalks with a slotted spoon and place on a serving platter. Raise the heat and simmer until the broth is reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, then drizzle over the asparagus. Garnish with the grated lemon peel.

Linguine with Asparagus and Poached Egg

Makes 4 servings

3/4 pound linguine or fettuccine

1 large bunch (about 1 pound) slender asparagus stalks, ends trimmed and halved lengthwise

3 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup (about 1 ounce) shaved Parmesan, plus more for serving

4 large eggs

In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the pasta according to package directions, adding the asparagus in the last minute of cooking. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid; drain pasta and asparagus and return to the pot along with the butter and shaved Parmesan. Toss until the butter is melted, adding enough pasta water to create a thin sauce that coats the pasta.

While the pasta is cooking, heat 2 inches of water in a large, straight-sided skillet until a few bubbles rise to the top. Crack each egg into a small bowl and gently slide out into the simmering water. Cook until the whites are set and the yolks still relatively runny, about 4 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the eggs to a plate.

To serve, divide the pasta among 4 bowls then top each serving with an egg, and season with additional Parmesan as well as salt and pepper.

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living.

Steak and Asparagus Stir-Fry

Makes 4 servings

Red Thai chiles turn up the flavor volume on this one-pot weeknight special. So simple, colorful and tasty.

1 tablespoon each: soy sauce, chili garlic sauce, toasted sesame oil

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

9 ounces skirt steak, cut with the grain into 4-inch-wide pieces, then against the grain into 1/4-inch thick slices, or New York strip steak, cut against the grain into 1/4-inch thick slices

Coarse salt

A 1 1/2-inch piece of peeled fresh ginger, shredded or minced to measure 3 tablespoons

1 1/2 red Thai chiles or 1/2 jalapeno, minced, seeds and ribs included

1 1/2 bunches green onions, thinly sliced on the bias, white and pale green parts only

About 1 pound asparagus, trimmed and sliced on the bias into 1/4-inch thick pieces

Cooked rice

Lime wedges and dry-roasted peanuts for garnishing

Combine the soy sauce, chili garlic sauce and toasted sesame oil; set aside.

Heat a large wok or skillet over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil, swirl to coat, then add the steak. Season with salt and sear, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Add remaining tablespoon of oil to the wok and swirl to coat. Add the ginger, chiles and green onions and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the asparagus and cook until just crisp-tender, about 2 more minutes. Return the steak to the wok, along with the reserved soy sauce mixture and heat through, tossing the ingredients to combine thoroughly. Remove from heat and serve over the rice, along with the lime wedges and peanuts.

Garlic Parmesan Roasted Asparagus (with a Feta and Arugula Salad Option)

Makes 4 servings

Roasting fresh asparagus brings out its sweet character. A truly delicious way to go!

1/2 pound fresh asparagus

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 to 5 cloves finely minced fresh garlic

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Feta and Arugula Salad Option (see below)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with no-stick cooking spray. Trim off the woody ends from the asparagus and spread out in a thin layer in the baking sheet. Drizzle with the olive oil and turn the spears to coat each one with a bit of the oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, garlic and Parmesan. Use your hands to mix the asparagus with all the ingredients, then rearrange the spears into a single layer again.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 8 minutes, or until the spears and cheese are a rich, golden brown. Remove from the oven and serve.

Feta and Arugula Salad Option: Whisk together 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar and 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. After removing the roasted asparagus from the oven and arranging them on a large platter, toss the vinaigrette with 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese, 1/4 pound fresh, young arugula (stemmed), and 1/3 cup lightly toasted pine nuts. Arrange this mixture on top of the roasted vegetables and serve.

Asparagus and Pea Risotto with Lemon

Makes 4 servings

Risotto is a great base for all kinds of vegetables: asparagus and peas in the spring, fresh tomatoes and corn in the summer, peppers in the autumn, and leeks in the winter. It’s done when it has a loose consistency, and it ripples when spooned into a bowl.

6 cups vegetable or chicken stock, preferably homemade

1/4 cup olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

About 3/4 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed, stalks cut into 2-inch lengths

1 cup thawed frozen peas

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, plus more for garnish

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring the stock to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Place a ladle in the pot and set it aside over warm heat.

Heat two tablespoons of the oil over medium heat in another saucepan. Saute the onion, stirring frequently, until soft, 6 to 7 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, until the edges are translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the wine; cook, stirring just until the wine has evaporated.

Ladle in 1/2 cup of the hot stock; cook, stirring, until almost completely absorbed. Continue adding 1/2 cup stock in this manner until the liquid is creamy and the rice is still a bit al dente, about 20 minutes total (you may not need to add all the stock). Add the asparagus with the last addition of stock, and the peas about 1 minute before the risotto is done.

Remove from heat; stir in lemon zest and juice, parsley, cheese, and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately with additional cheese and lemon zest.

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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