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In Season: How to cook tender asparagus

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Fresh organic asparagus begins to arrive in our markets in earnest in late February, as the returning sun coaxes the spears from the ground. Most of the earliest fresh crop comes from the warmer parts of the Bay Area or farther south in the Central Coast or Southern California, but our asparagus beds here in the North Bay are waking up, too.

Some spears will be thin as pencils, some stalks as thick as your thumb. Since what we want is sweet, succulent, tender spears, it’s important to know whether thick or thin spears are the tenderest.

Scientists at the Michigan Agricultural Research Station loaded a shear press, which measures toughness, with asparagus.

They found that spear toughness increases with decreasing diameter and with increasing distance from the spear tip. In other words, the thicker the spear, the tenderer it is.

Green to purple spears are the most flavorful. Green asparagus is a prime source of folic acid — the vitamin that pregnant women should take to insure proper nervous system development in their babies.

Just a half cup of it provides one third of the recommended daily amount of this nutrient.

Conventional farms may spray both pesticides and fungicides, so if you want to avoid toxic agricultural chemicals, look for certified organic spears.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy spring asparagus is to find patches of it growing wild.

If you forage wild asparagus, be aware that asparagus can take up heavy metals when grown on or near waste disposal sites.

Many people think that the only way to cook asparagus is to boil it and serve it steaming hot to the table. But that only begins to unearth the riches of this vegetable. Roasting does wonders for the flavor.

Prepare asparagus spears in the usual way by grasping the cut end in one hand and a spot a few inches from the tip in the other.

Bend each spear until it snaps. That separates the tough part of the spear from the tender part. The tough ends can go into the soup pot, but the tip ends go into a skillet or baking dish.

Drizzle them with olive oil, grind some sea salt between the thumb and forefinger over them, toss the spears with a spatula until they’re coated with oil, and pop the skillet into a 500-degree oven for five minutes.

At the end of five minutes, give the skillet a shake and turn the spears over with a spatula, then close the door for five more minutes.

As they come out of the oven, squish the juice of half of a lime over them, and immediately serve them as a side dish.

Roasting does for asparagus what it does for beets — intensifies the flavor and gives it a bit of caramelized richness. Use thick spears for this method, as thin spears can toughen up in the hot oven.

Steaming is a fine way to cook asparagus without boiling all the nutrients out of them.

When making risotto, steam asparagus tips to add along with lime juice, steamed shrimp and fresh white corn kernels as the risotto nears completion.

If you must boil them, do it over medium to simmering heat in a skillet with a half-inch of acidulated, salted water, and cover the skillet.

Check it frequently during a 10-minute boil to make sure the water isn’t boiling away, and turn the spears once or twice with the spatula. When properly cooked, they should be bright green.

If the color goes dull and is more olive than green, they’re overcooked. If they’re as limp as a boiled noodle, they’re overdone.

You can microwave asparagus, giving them a couple of minutes, then turning them and giving them a couple more, and this method retains all their nutrients.

Some cooks swear by the double boiler method of cooking asparagus.

Put about 5 inches or so of lightly salted water in the bottom of a double boiler and bring it to a boil.

Stand the prepared spears tips up in the water so the top inch and a half or two inches of tip are out of the water, turn the top of the double boiler upside down and place it like a dome over the asparagus.

Slender spears will take anywhere from three to five minutes and extra thick spears may take 10 minutes this way, but most index-finger-sized spears will probably take about seven to eight minutes.

The old-fashioned German and Polish way to serve boiled asparagus was to dress the spears with bread crumbs browned in butter.

Today we might use olive oil and bread crumbs or wheat germ. In Czechoslovakia, spears are often baked in a casserole with milk, cheese and nutmeg.

And in Japan, asparagus mushimono is asparagus tips or dice baked into an egg custard with mirin, soy sauce and chicken broth.

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Asparagus has such a delicate and subtle flavor that it’s easily overwhelmed by too many other ingredients.

But it always goes perfectly with three other flavors: egg yolks, lemon and butter.

And when you combine those three other ingredients correctly, you get hollandaise sauce.

If this is too much saturated fat for you, make a monounsaturated substitute by blending a California avocado with the juice of a lime, a few chopped basil leaves, a tablespoon of minced scallion (white part only), and pinches of salt and sugar.

Place in a blender and while it’s whirring, drop blobs of plain yogurt into the blender until the mixture turns creamy.

Steamed Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce

Makes 2 to 4 servings

1 pound prepared fresh organic asparagus (prepare the asparagus by the snap method and steam it in a vegetable steamer for about four or five minutes, until spears are bright green and tender).

For the hollandaise:

3 egg yolks

2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

— Salt and pepper

1 stick (4 ounces) butter

For the hollandaise: You can make hollandaise by hand in a double boiler, but I find this method to be so much easier and really, foolproof, that I’ve dispensed with the whisk and hot water method.

Put the yolks, lemon juice, a pinch of salt and a single grind of fresh black pepper in the blender.

Melt the butter in a saucepan over low to medium heat, until the water in the butter foams.

Put on the blender top and whiz on highest speed for a couple of seconds, then, still blending, uncover and pour in the melted butter in a steady drip of droplets — not a continuous stream of butter.

When most of the butter has been blended in, the sauce will be thick and creamy. Don’t add the whitish residue in the bottom of the saucepan.

If the sauce fails to thicken, simply pour it out into a measuring cup, then pour it back into the whirring blender.

Immediately pour it over asparagus on individual plates or in a serving dish, allowing some green to show against the beautiful light yellow sauce.

One taste will reveal why hollandaise has been and will probably always be the sauce that brings asparagus to life.

Yes, it’s a lot of butter, but you’re not going to have this every night. Live a little.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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