Asparagus five ways – The Denver Post

The other day, I was reading in Pliny the Elder’s “The Natural History” (yeah, I know …). What caught my attention was what he wrote about the asparagus of Ravenna, Italy, and how large it was — “when highly manured, weighing three pounds” — in contradistinction to how we might seek out pencil-thin stalks for our cooking.

And none “highly manured.”

What is it with this wondrous harbinger of spring that we have prized it for millennia and eat it so ravenously?

It’s botanical name, asparagus officinalis, suggests one reason: In ancient days, the “officina” was the storehouse of a monastery where the monks kept medicines. “Eat your asparagus,” meant “Take your meds.”

It costs a lot, even when abundant, as it is in this season, because it is difficult to cultivate. It grows in and on mounds of soil that are not productive for two years. It then enjoys solid growth for another two years, and then flags in output for a final two years. In other words, an asparagus farmer works about half time for nothing. It’s like selling Christmas trees. (Plus, it must be hand-harvested.)

Germans, Belgians, and many French enjoy it white, rather than green, achieved by disallowing the shoots to see sunlight out of their mounds. I remember once downing an entire plateful of “spargal” — its German name — steamed and slathered with no more than salt and drawn butter, and afterward burping (happily) for hours.

Asparagus is commonly eaten cooked, but especially the tender tips may be eaten raw. I lightly peel the bottom half of green or purple asparagus stems — I don’t care how thick or thin they are; all of them — before cooking.

Here are five mini-recipes for preparing asparagus. One element that I always find works well with asparagus is something tart or acidic — lemon juice, for example — as a foil to its native bitterness.

In parchment paper packets with salmon: Make a sealed packet with parchment paper or aluminum foil of a filet of salmon, a quarter bunch of asparagus, a few strips of white of leek, 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil, grinds of black pepper, a pinch of kosher salt, and sprinklings of any fresh green herb of your liking (dill, thyme, flat leaf parsley, etc.). Bake on a sheet in a preheated 400-degree oven for 10 minutes. Put the packet on a plate for serving; the aromas on opening are nearly the best part.

In a risotto: Make a standard risotto, using vegetable stock. A couple of minutes before it is finished, for every cup of rice with which you started, add 1 pound of asparagus cut into 2-inch pieces. Then finish, stirring, with the zest of a small lemon, its juice, 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves, and 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

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