Lemons and Asparagus- A Match Made in Heaven

There are so many wonderful ways to cook and eat asparagus, surely an entire book could easily be devoted to this tasty harbinger of spring.  I’d been eating it all my life, but had never seen it in it’s natural state till I went away to school.  The college I attended had been built relatively recently on active farmland, evidenced by the apples each fall and the appearance of asparagus each spring in the fields that were part of our campus.  As college students who cooked our own meals we were always looking to save money (more for beer!) and so we foraged the now fallow (but not really) fields for free vegetables!  A patch of straw or dead grasses might even reveal white asparagus, an especially desirable treasure if only because of it’s relative scarcity.
If you want to try growing asparagus you will need some patience, it takes about three years for a patch to begin producing well.  You can grow it from seeds (cheap and slow) or purchase mature “crowns”(expensive and fast).  Your patience will be well rewarded as this perennial (and self seeding) lily will produce for fifteen years or more.

Asparagus spears can grow more than a foot a day!

Select asparagus with firm, intact and closed tips.  Many people believe that “thick” asparagus will lack the tenderness of the pencil thin ones but I don’t.  The thicker asparagus can be just as delicate,  more of a function of freshness and  the variety grown than the diameter of the stalk.

If your asparagus has traveled far, chances are the base of the stems are woody and may even retain some of the sand or soil they were grown in.  Bend a stalk slowly till it breaks, the point at which it snaps is where the good part of the asparagus begins.   If your bunch is of various thicknesses it may be desirable to peel the thicker ones with a vegetable peeler to make them uniform.  Peeling the bottom half of the asparagus can often help to remove the more fibrous bits if your asparagus is long out of the soil.  Personally I find it unnecessary if it is very fresh.  If you are not going to be cooking all of the asparagus you bought immediately, trim off the ends and place in a glass with a few inches of water and keep in the fridge.  This will maintain freshness for many days if you keep changing the water, and re-trim the bottoms  if they appear shriveled.
Really fresh asparagus is perfectly delicious raw, but if I were serving a crudite platter and using thicker asparagus, I advise you to briefly blanch them.
There are many ways of cooking asparagus and they all have their advantages.  I prefer to blanch my asparagus first, no matter how I choose to finish its cooking.  I plunge them into boiling water for a few minutes, preferably using a tall sided saute pan, then into ice water (even better, add a few drops of lemon juice).  The skinnier they are, the less you need to cook them.  Keep them in the fridge till everything else you’re serving is nearly ready.  Not only does this fix their brilliant green color but it makes the final cooking very fast and controllable.  Later I may choose to eat them cold, saute in melted butter (or olive oil) to heat up and then serve with some traditional Hollandaise, or a simple pat of butter and squeeze of lemon and some cracked pepper.
Grilling asparagus has become a favorite method, the added nuance of carmelization gives them an extra zing and is particularly suited to the rustic Italian style of food that I prefer.  Blanch first, marinate in some olive oil and whatever else you care to toss in, and onto the grill they go.  TIP:  To prevent the asparagus from falling between the grates of your grill T-bone three or four spears at a time with a bamboo skewer – it really helps and makes them easy to turn too.
After the final grilling (or sauteing) they can be served hot, room temperature, or even cold.  They can be dressed with a wide variety of sauces, or nothing at all.  My favorite dressing?  Surprise, it’s Italian!  Please try it even if you “think” you don’t care for anchovies.  You will be shocked how delicious this will taste and be converted.
And Away We Go

A few cloves of chopped garlic

Half a tin of anchovies (or more)

Juice of one average lemon

A few glugs of fine quality extra virgin olive oil

A few tablespoons of butter

Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan cheese, the good stuff), shave it with a vegetable peeler or use the large size on a box grater

Parmigiano Reggiano - Accept no substitutes

Saute the garlic slowly in butter, as it begins to turn golden add a few glugs of olive oil then add the anchovies, stir and mash them up with a wooden spoon.  The anchovies will begin to “melt.” Watch the heat and be careful not to burn the garlic.  Add lemon juice and let it simmer a minute or two, adding a bit more olive oil.  Pour over asparagus and sprinkle with Parmigiano.

I like to garnish with thin slices of lemon like in the picture above. Remember, this is delicious hot, room temperature or cold.  If you’re serving it cold have the dressing at room temperature or warmed.

Just in case you were wondering, the smelly pee that many experience after ingesting asparagus turns out to be a genetic thing. Apparently about half of the general population makes stinky urine after eating asparagus, and another percentage possess a gene that allows them to smell it.  So you may produce smelly pee and not be able to smell it yourself, not be able to produce stinky smell and not smell stinky pee, be able to smell stinky pee in others but not produce it yourself OR be able to smell it and produce it. Scientists don’t have a definitive answer, but stinky pee pee is probably linked to something called methyl mercaptan (same thing that makes skunk spray stink), and the presence (or not) of certain enzymes in our gut that break down the asparagus.

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