The age of asparagus

Asparagus with Fish

Asparagus with Fish

In Wisconsin, asparagus is one of the first vegetables of spring, a perennial that’s quite welcome after the long winter. It grows naturally in ditches along country roads, and that’s reason enough for a lot of people to revel in the short-season vegetable (whether foraged or bought at the farmers market).

If the wild side alone doesn’t delight you, consider why some experts consider asparagus a “superfood”: Asparagus is loaded with vitamin K and folate, and boasts a hearty dose of vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin C, and vitamin E. Those asparagus spears also contain plenty of fiber, potassium, zinc, and iron to list a few. This heart healthy veggie aids digestion, helps regulate blood sugar, and acts as an anti-inflammatory.

Few vegetables are as versatile when it comes to cooking. It can be easily baked, broiled, grilled, steamed, sautéed and even deep fried.

And it’s not just for dinner. Asparagus’ affinity with eggs is renowned—no other vegetable tastes so delicious with eggs—and one of my all time favorite ways to prepare asparagus is with a runny fried or poached egg, thick tomato slices, and grated parmesan cheese. This healthy dish is near perfection and a great way to use leftover cooked asparagus, as the preparation of the spears matters little. Whether steamed or grilled, they pair deliciously with the creamy yolk, or with scrambled eggs or in a frittata.

When cooked just right as a side dish, asparagus needs little more than salt and pepper and perhaps a dash of lemon juice. Cooking time varies greatly depending on method and size of the spears. Either cook like-sized spears together, or time it so the thicker stalks go in before the smaller ones. Cooked just right, the color brightens to a rich green and the spears will bend a bit but still maintain some crispiness. It’s important to air on the side of caution, as asparagus becomes unattractive and virtually inedible and when cooked too long.

If asparagus flying solo isn’t your favorite, there are plenty of ways to dress it up. Try glazing baked asparagus with balsamic, soy, or a honey-hazelnut combo. Dress cook asparagus with creamy sauces with hints of dill, chive, rosemary, thyme or basil.

And when all else fails, wrap it in bacon. Or deep fry it.

Asparagus spears wrapped in bacon—either individual spears or a small bunch wrapped together—can be baked in the oven or cooked on the grill.

Deep fry asparagus by first coating each spear in a batter. For a similar effect with less mess, asparagus oven fries are a delicious alternative. Coat each spear with a breading mixture then bake. These are especially good with a little parmesan cheese and garlic aioli.

Raw asparagus in a cold dish tastes rather woody. I like to blanch it first: just a minute or two in boiling water then placed in a cold water bath to stop the cooking process. This maintains the integrity of the vegetable while softening and lightening the flavor.

For the most health and flavor benefits, the fresher the better. Asparagus doesn’t keep as well in the refrigerator than most other vegetables. For the longest life, store it like a bouquet of flowers, with bottoms trimmed, stood upright in a shallow container of water. This effect also is accomplished by wrapping a wet paper towel around the bottoms. Asparagus that has been stored too long becomes slimy and stringy.

The long spears generally have a woody end that you trim off before cooking. Those ends needn’t be wasted, though. Saved them in the freezer to make vegetable stock later. Simply add the trimmings (with other vegetable trimmings when you have them) to a large pot of water, simmer 30-60 minutes, then reserve the liquid for a flavorful addition to soups or sauces.

Local asparagus already has appeared at the farmer’s markets, and typically is available until around mid-June.

Recipe: Asparagus and Fish En Papillote

En papillote is a cooking method in which food is wrapped in a parchment paper pouch then baked in the oven. It sounds fancy but is quite simple and a great way to prepare a “one pot” flavorful meal. It works especially well with fish because it steams the ingredients in the packet, sauce and all. Be certain the paper is big enough to completely fold-seal the edges so the pouch doesn’t open while cooking. Serves 6, one pouch per person.

For the chive butter:

4 Tbsp. butter, softened

1 Tbsp. minced garlic

3 Tbsp. finely chopped chives

Salt and white pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and store in airtight container.

For inside the 6 pouches:

6 Alaskan cod filet (or fish of your choice)

1–2 bunches asparagus, trimmed

6 Tbsp. capers, drained and rinsed

6 Tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice

6 tsp. chive butter

Cayenne pepper, salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400°. Lay out 6 large pieces of parchment paper. In each piece, line up 4-6 pieces of asparagus on one side of the paper. Place one fish filet on top of asparagus. Top with 1 Tbsp. capers, 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, 1 tsp. chive butter and seasonings.

     Form a pouch by folding the paper, then crimping the edges together, in multiple tiny, angled folds, to create a tightly sealed pocket around the ingredients. (Online, search “how to make en papillote” and you’ll find many quick tutorials.)

     Place the pouches on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes. Fish and asparagus should be steamed to tender.