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Thursday, May 23

Gapers Block

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I enjoy eating asparagus, but I've vowed to never have it at lunch during the work week. Why? Well, because of the effect it has on my urine. I just think it is more information than my co-workers require about me.

Apparently, only 22 percent of the population thinks their urine smells of asparagus after eating it, but that isn't the case. The vast majority of those who can smell it in their own urine can smell it in others. So just because you don't think your pee stinks, doesn't mean the person in the next stall agrees with you.

But we wouldn't eat it if it weren't darned tasty, would we? Of course not. And you've come here looking for different ways to prepare it. And I'll give that to you, but first I'll give you some tips on choosing, storing and cleaning asparagus.

You want firm stalks that aren't dry, limp, wrinkled or that have ruffly tips. You want the tips to be tight and compact. Since asparagus dries out quickly, you'll want to wrap a wet paper towel around the cut ends and put it in a tightly closed plastic bag and keep in the refrigerator no more than a couple of days before serving. When cleaning asparagus, you should hold the stalk upside down under running water. This should get any remaining sand particles out of the tips.

If you have asparagus that is very thin, the entire stalk will be edible. If you have older, thicker asparagus, the way to determine where to cut off the end is by holding one end of the stalk in each hand and bending the stalk until it snaps. It will snap where the stalk quits being fibrous and starts being tender. Most people throw away these asparagus ends, but I suggest keeping them for one of the recipes to follow.

Most people cook asparagus by boiling or steaming it and then they pour hollandaise or some other cream sauce on it. There's nothing wrong with that, but there are other ways to cook it. My favorite recipe for asparagus takes about three hours to bake, but it's worth the planning and perfect for Sunday dinner. Of course, you can always grill asparagus, but since we're not quite into guaranteed grilling weather, I'll show you how to roast it in your oven. And then there's risotto!

Slow-Roasted Asparagus
1 pound of asparagus
1/2 tablespoon of olive oil
Zest from half of a lemon
Salt and pepper
1 bunch of fresh thyme or tarragon
1/4 cup of dry white wine

Clean the asparagus and break off the ends as directed above. Place the asparagus on a generous piece of parchment. Drizzle the olive oil over the asparagus and then add all the other ingredients except for the wine. Bring the two long sides together over the asparagus and fold several times — but don't make the foil tight against the asparagus; you'll want room for steam to move.

Fold one of the short ends several times. Pour in the wine and seal up the other end, then place on a baking sheet (just in case the package busts). Set the oven at 250° for about 2-1/2 to 3 hours. It will slowly steam and the asparagus won't come out mushy, unless you seriously overcook it. Drizzle with a little more olive oil or a dollop of butter and serve. Creates a side dish for 4-5 people.

Quick-Roasted Asparagus
1 pound of asparagus
1/2 tablespoon of olive oil
1 tablespoon of minced garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Drizzle of balsamic vinegar

Pre-heat your oven to 400°. Clean the asparagus and break off the ends as directed above. To make clean-up easier, you can line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Spread the asparagus in a single layer in the pan. Sprinkle the olive oil, garlic, and salt and pepper over the asparagus. Roast in the middle of the oven for about 15 minutes. There's no reason to turn it. Drizzle with a dash of balsamic vinegar and serve. A sprinkle of freshly shredded parmesan cheese is also nice. Creates a side-dish for 4-5 people.

Asparagus Risotto
About 4 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
1 pound of asparagus
1/4 cup of olive oil
2 cups sliced shiitake mushrooms (1/4 inch thick)
Salt and pepper
1 cup of finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon of minced garlic (about 2-3 cloves)
1 cup of Arborio rice (don't try to substitute)
1/2 cup of dry white wine
1-1/2 teaspoons of finely chopped fresh thyme or tarragon
1 tablespoon of unsalted butter
1/4 cup of coarsely grated Fontina cheese
3/4 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1-1/2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)
1-1/2 teaspoons of freshly grated lemon zest (optional)

Pour the stock into a saucepan and place over high heat. Clean and snap off the ends from the asparagus as directed above. Place the ends in the chicken stock when it begins to boil (if the ends are gnarly, peel off the skin first). Turn the heat to low, and simmer gently until the ends are tender, about seven minutes. Scoop out the ends and throw them away. Slice the rest of the asparagus into bite-sized pieces and set aside for later. Keep the stock turned on low.

While you're cooking the asparagus, heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until hot. Add in the mushrooms and don't move them until they start to turn brown, about one minute. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper and sauté until they've browned, about 5 minutes. Add these to the asparagus.

Lower the heat under your now-empty saucepan to medium and add the onion and a pinch or two of salt. Cook until soft but not brown, or about two minutes. Add the garlic and cook briefly, about 15-20 seconds, before adding the rice and stirring until the grains look pearly white, about two minutes.

Add the wine and stir continuously until most of the wine is gone. Adjust the heat so the rice cooks at a very low simmer. Add half a cup of the stock and stir continuously until the pan is almost dry. Season very lightly with salt and pepper. This lets the flavors really soak into the rice. Add another half cup of the stock and continue as before, repeating until the rice is almost cooked, or about 15 minutes. Stir in the thyme, mushrooms and sliced asparagus, adding another 1/2 cup of stock and stirring until the rice is still firm and the asparagus is bright green and just tender. This last step shouldn't take more than 4-5 minutes.

Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, Fontina cheese, 1/2 cup of the Parmesan cheese, the parsley and the lemon zest. Taste and re-season with salt and pepper if necessary. Pass the remaining parmesan cheese for people to add as desired. Makes 3-4 hearty servings if eaten as a meal, or 6-8 servings if used as a side. This recipe can also be found at Napa Style.

I don't think locally grown asparagus is quite ready for harvest, but it will be soon so make sure to stop by the farmer's markets when they open and enjoy the spring weather with a side of spring produce.

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