Spears to Savor

I don’t know about historic claims of asparagus’s aphrodisiac properties (probably based more on shape than on chemistry), but the vegetable sure is a culinary stud. On a grill, in a steamer pot, a roasting pan, a pickling jar…this is one stalk that really gets around. And it’s strutting its best stuff right about now.

Thick or thin, green or white (sometimes even purple, which is sweeter), its appeal suits any predilection. Want to grill or stir-fry? Skinny stalks cook up quicker. Prefer roasting or steaming? The more tender, fatter shoots are your baby, though the stems will need a quick vegetable-peeler shave. Whichever you hook up with, remember to trim off the woody bottoms. And, please, don’t overcook them. You want deep green color, a crisp/tender texture. Treat them right and their pleasures will abound. Wrong them and you’ll have a soggy, sorry mush.

The right treatment, according to Chef Chris Vergara of Meritage Restaurant (1505 Weaver St, Scarsdale, 914-472-8484), is to keep it simple. “You don’t want to fuss around with something that’s brilliant,” he says, and his methods are simplicity itself: good olive oil, sea salt, and lemon atop grilled asparagus; blanched stalks sautéed in chicken stock and butter, or sliced with morels and fava beans in a lightly dressed salad. The fussiest he gets is a puréed asparagus soup topped with crabmeat and crème fraîche. But simplicity, he cautions, is compromised without freshness. “You want to get your asparagus soon after it’s harvested,” he says. “Its sugar and water content diminish rapidly.” Choose firm spears with closed, compact tips, and uniform thickness for even cooking. Once you get them home, wrap a moist paper towel around the stem ends and refrigerate for up to three days.

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Oh, and don’t mind that funny post-meal smell when you use the restroom. That’s just the natural breakdown of asparagus’s amino acids during digestion. I guess even aphrodisiacs have their faults.

Asparagus Ragout
Adapted from Chris Vergara, Meritage
(Serves 4 as side dish)

1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp minced shallot
¾ cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 ½ cups blanched asparagus tips (reserve stems for another use)
1 cup shelled, blanched fava beans
1 cup small morel mushrooms
1 Tbsp minced fresh herbs, i.e., tarragon/chervil/parsley/thyme salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Melt butter with a pinch of salt over low heat. Add shallots and cook until translucent. Raise heat to medium, add morels and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add asparagus, fava beans, and stock and cook, stirring until liquid has reduced and slightly thickened. Add herbs, season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

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