Kitchen Focus

April marks the beginning of the peak season for asparagus and that means I'll be trying to work it into my menus at least twice a week ... maybe more! And even though I am an avid gardener, I don't have the patience to grow it myself -- asparagus needs at least two full growing seasons before spears are harvested! So I find myself relying on Brennan's, my favorite local farmers' and specialty market. If you're like me and are getting your asparagus from the market, there are some rules to follow when picking the perfect bunch:
  • The peak season for asparagus is April through May in the western states, and May through July in the rest of the United States. While it's available year round, asparagus is best enjoyed when it's in season.
  • Look for straight, green, rounded stalks that are free from damage or discolored spots.
  • Select firm asparagus that does not have a strong odor. Odors can indicate asparagus that's starting to rot!
  • Make sure the tips are small, closed and either dark green or purple. This is an indication of health and the age of the asparagus ... both important factors when choosing asparagus.
  • Avoid asparagus with woody stalks. The stalk's girth, however, does not affect its tenderness quotient; thin asparagus is no more likely to be tender than thick asparagus. Instead, choose thicker stalks for dishes in which asparagus will be on its own, like grilled asparagus or the side dish at the end of this column, or thinner stalks for dishes in which it will be included with other ingredients, like asparagus quiche or the frittata recipe below.

Once you get home, make sure the asparagus is either refrigerated or kept in cold water. Asparagus is best used the day you buy it, but it will keep for three to four days ... unless you didn't follow the directions above!

Of course, no primer on asparagus would be complete without a couple of recipes! This first one is a brunch favorite of mine, although it's equally at home as a late dinner with a glass of wine and a simple salad. In fact, when asparagus is in season, I usually have it with eggs in one form or another at least once a week! Crisp-tender asparagus is a wonderful addition to omelets, quiche ... even scrambled eggs. A little sharp cheese like Parmesan or aged cheddar helps make such a dish "pop" even more. Enjoy!

Asparagus Frittata

This simple frittata is an open-faced omelet that can be enjoyed any time of the day ... even as a simple dinner.
  • 3/4 lb. asparagus
  • 2 T. butter
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 T. parsley
  • Salt and pepper
  • Cooking spray

Prepare the asparagus by slicing the spears on the diagonal into 1/4 inch pieces, leaving the tips whole. Melt the butter in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the asparagus and saute until it is crisp-tender. Remove to a dish.

Whisk the eggs in a bowl until well blended. Whisk in the Parmesan, parsley, a generous pinch of salt and several grinds of pepper.

Reheat the skillet over medium heat. Spray the pan lightly with cooking spray and add the asparagus. Add the eggs and stir briefly to make sure the asparagus pieces are evenly distributed, then reduce the heat to low or moderately low and cook without stirring until the frittata is almost completely set, about 20 minutes. The center should not be set.

While the frittata cooks, preheat the broiler and arrange a rack about 8 inches from the heating element. Put the skillet under the broiler and cook, watching constantly, until the surface of the frittata is firm and lightly colored. Let the frittata rest in the skillet for a few minutes, then transfer it to a platter or cutting board to cut into serving sized pieces.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 45 minutes

The second dish I'm offering this month is a nice side dish for any elegant meal. I'm particularly fond of serving this one with Chicken Picatta since it mirrors many of the same flavors and pairs nicely with the delicious chicken dish. This is the type of dish that benefits most from thick spears.

Many people mistakenly assume that thick spears will be more tough, fibrous and not as sweet as the thinner spears, but that's not the case. In fact, white asparagus tends to be less sweet and more fibrous than its green sister, so keep that in mind when choosing white asparagus for cooking. I generally prefer the green version and, for this dish, I try to find spears that are at least 1/4-inch thick. The cut ends of the asparagus should be trimmed. While you can break them near the end, it isn't necessary. Simply trim the ends about 1/2-inch from the cut end and you should be good to go.

So, from now until the end of spring, take advantage of the fresh asparagus that's showing up in markets everywhere. One of the really pleasant things about choosing produce in season is that it's better quality that's usually at a better price. Now, how can you argue with that? It's time to enjoy this springtime star!

Parmesan-Lemon Asparagus

  • 1 lb. asparagus
  • 6 T. butter, at room temperature
  • 1/4 c. Parmesan cheese
  • 2 T. lemon juice
  • 1 clove minced garlic
  • 1 tsp. dried basil

Clean and precook (steam, boil or microwave) the asparagus just until crisp-tender. Drain it and arrange the spears in a broiler-safe casserole dish.

While the asparagus is precooking, beat the butter until creamy and add the rest of the ingredients, whipping the mixture until all of the ingredients are incorporated well. Spread the butter mixture over the asparagus in the casserole dish, leaving the tips and about 1 inch of the ends exposed. Broil in the oven just until the topping is golden. Serve hot.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 20 minutes
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