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Ode to asparagus

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Asparagus is the king of all spring vegetables.

A bold statement that fans of baby peas and green onions may protest, but what other vegetable is celebrated by entire Italian and French villages, which salute its dual green and ivory countenance every spring with festivals dedicated to its tender, grassy flavor.

First cultivated about 2,500 years ago in Greece, asparagus is Greek for stalk or shoot. The Greeks believed asparagus was an herbal cure for everything from toothaches to bee stings. The second-century physician Galen described asparagus as "cleansing and healing." The Romans were big fans and grew it in high-walled courtyards. In their conquests, they spread it to the Gauls, Germans, British and from there, the rest of the world.

Asparagus, which is a member of the lily family, has a split personality. It is best known in America as a beautiful apple-green stalk with purple-tinged tips, a garden sentry that grows from a crown that is planted about a foot deep in sandy soils -- that's why it's so important to wash it thoroughly of grit. An asparagus gardener must cultivate patience -- a typical plant is usually not harvested for the first three years, allowing the crown to develop a strong fibrous root system. Europeans prefer the shy white asparagus (particularly the famous French asparagus of Argenteuil), which is grown underground to prevent it from becoming green. White spears are more delicate of flavor, yet thicker and smoother than the green variety. Asparagus plants live up to 10 years, with the spear's size indicating the age of the plant from which it came -- the more mature the plant, the thicker the asparagus.

When shopping for asparagus, straight and firm stalks with tight buds are best. Stick your fingernail into the bottom of the asparagus and see if there is any juice. If it is dry, it will be too fibrous and tough. It's best to cook the asparagus the day you buy it, but if you can't, cut off the ends and soak it in water for an hour or so. Then store the dried stalks tightly wrapped in plastic for three or four days in the refrigerator. Before you blanch, peel the thicker end of the stalk of its stringy outer cover, revealing the tender heart beneath.

A nutrient-dense food, asparagus is high in folic acid and is a good source of potassium, fiber, vitamin B-6, vitamins A and C, and thiamin. Naturally low in calories, asparagus is rich in fiber, making it filling, as well as healthful.

When Michelle Haines, chef-owner of the Spring Mill Caf in Conshohocken, Penn., thinks of asparagus, she thinks of her grandmother. "She was a marvelous cook; I learned everything from her," said Haines, in her heavily accented French. Haines, who serves rustic, country French fare at her combination restaurant/art gallery, was born in Paris but grew up in the Touraine region in the French countryside. "My grandmother went to the store every day -- and of course only vegetables and fruit in season were for sale. She loved asparagus and would simply blanch it and maybe serve it with a little vinaigrette. Or maybe on the side of a steak, soaking up the jus."

Martin Hamann, executive chef at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia, adores asparagus and features both the white and green versions on his menus as often as possible. "Go for the white when it's in season in early spring because the flavor is more pronounced -- it is a true delicacy."

Asparagus, white or green, is a rare thing -- a guiltless pleasure that can be indulged in over and over again. Just one more thing to love about spring.

Speaking of delicate, there's a rather indelicate side to asparagus that, like the elephant in the living room, just can't be ignored. Our beloved vegetable is a natural diuretic and produces an odiferous, skunky after-effect as its amino acids are broken down during digestion and eliminated in urine. That said, there's something comforting about knowing where you've been. And when it comes to asparagus, any vestige of this wonderful vegetable is a badge of honor.

Sauted Asparagus With Ginger and Soy

1 pound asparagus, peeled and trimmed

1 clove garlic, peeled and minced

1 large shallot, peeled and minced

1 piece ginger, peeled and minced

1 small bunch cilantro, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

1-2 tablespoons soy sauce (or to taste)

1. Blanch asparagus in boiling, salted water until highly colored and then shock in ice water. Dry stems and set aside.

2. Heat film of olive oil in pan and saut garlic, shallots and ginger until lightly colored.

3. Add asparagus and cook until heated through.

4. Stir in soy sauce to taste and sprinkle with chopped cilantro.

White Asparagus with Lemon Crme Fraiche and Caviar

1 pound white asparagus, trimmed

1 cup crme fraiche

1 tablespoon chopped chives

Lemon juice to taste

Caviar to taste

1. Blanch asparagus in boiling, salted water until al dente. Dry stems.

2. Mix crme fraiche with chives and lemon juice to taste.

3. Divide asparagus among four plates and top with sauce and spoonful of caviar.

Serves 4.

-- Recipes courtesy of Chef Martin Hamann, Four Seasons, Philadelphia, Penn.

Asparagus Ballad de Mediterranean

2 shallots, peeled and minced

3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/3 cup virgin olive oil

3 baby eggplants, julienned

3 baby zucchini, julienned

2-3 ripe juicy tomatoes, diced

Freshly ground black pepper

Salt

1 tablespoon fresh basil, chiffonade

1 pound white or green asparagus

1. Blanch the asparagus in boiling salted water just until al dente. Remember that white asparagus cooks faster than green. Shock in cold water, drain and set aside.

2. Saut the shallots and garlic in olive oil until light brown. Remove from pan.

3. Over medium-high heat, sear the eggplant and zucchini. Remove from the pan and set aside. Quickly saut the tomatoes, mixing in the shallots and garlic. Turn off the heat, and mix in the eggplant, zucchini and basil. Spoon over fresh asparagus and serve.

Serves 4.

Recipe courtesy of Michele Haines, Chef/Owner, Spring Mill Caf, Conshohocken, Penn.

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