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Wednesday, June 4, 2008 02:04 pm

Spears of goodness

’Tis the season to eat asparagus

Untitled Document Yes, I know that asparagus is available in groceries these days pretty much year ’round, but it’s still something best enjoyed in spring, just plucked as it shoots from the earth in nearby fields. Grocery asparagus that’s been stored for long periods and shipped thousands of miles may be OK to satisfy off-season cravings, but its flavor pales in a taste test against the stalks that are stacked or piled at the farmers’ market and at local farm stands. When I was growing up, we had asparagus almost every day during its short growing season, from mid-April to June; then it disappeared from the table for the rest of the year. Though it wasn’t explicitly stated, my family’s philosophy was clear: Why bother with something that’s not at its prime, especially when so many other vegetables are coming into their own?
My mother and grandmother prepared asparagus in two ways: creamed over toast or poached and then dressed with browned butter. When I was a teenager, my mom made a radical departure from tradition: thinly sliced raw asparagus as a springtime garnish for a classic American-Italian salad. I still prepare asparagus virtually every day when it’s in season, and sometimes I still make it the way my mom and grandmother did. Over the years, however, I’ve tried dozens of different preparations. Some were classic, some innovative or experimental, some my own inventions, and others gleaned from cookbooks or friends’ recipes. The ones my family and I like best become a permanent part of our annual spring asparagus marathon.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@comcast.net.
This pasta sauce celebrates the essence of asparagus, and I make it at least once every spring. The butter, lemon, and cheese showcase the asparagus’ flavor without overwhelming or competing with it. It’s also a snap to make — it takes less than 30 minutes from start to finish. Wonderful as a main course, it also works well as a first course or side dish. This sauce works well with several different kinds of pasta, from fresh linguine and gnocchi to dry pastas such as penne and farfalle (bow-ties), but my favorite for this sauce — as well as a host of others — is orchiette (sometimes spelled “orechiette”). It translates as “little ears” or, more accurately, “little pigs’ ears.” The thumb-sized pieces of pasta are cupped, almost like little hats (or baby pigs’ ears) and are ideal for absorbing and holding sauce. Orchiette can be found locally at Angela’s Taste of Italy.
Asparagus and Lemon Pasta Sauce

1 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus 6 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more to taste 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano,
  plus more for serving.
Salt and freshly ground pepper (preferably white)
  to taste

Cut or break off the tough ends of the asparagus. This is easiest if you hold the asparagus stem upright in your left hand (or the right, if you’re left-handed) and bend it down sideways until it breaks off. It will break at the tough/tender juncture. Cut the asparagus into approximately 2-inch pieces and reserve the tips separately from the stems. In a large skillet or wok, sauté the asparagus stems in 4 tablespoons of the butter until the asparagus is just barely tender. You should be able to pierce the stems easily with a knife, but be careful not to overcook them. Turn the stems out onto a platter or tray and spread them in a single layer so they cool as quickly as possible. Cool the stems to room temperature, then put them in a blender or food processor. Sauté the asparagus tips in the same skillet, in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, until they’re just crisp-tender. They should be more al dente than the stem pieces. Set the asparagus tips aside, and set the skillet aside as well; it will be used to finish the dish. Add the lemon zest and juice to the blender.
Cook 1 pound of dried pasta in salted boiling water until it’s just a couple of minutes shy of al dente. (I’ve found that this is almost always a couple minutes less than the package directions, regardless of the brand.) Drain the pasta, but reserve 1 1/2 cups of the water in which the pasta was cooked. Add 1/2 cup of the pasta water to the asparagus in the blender or food processor and purée the contents. You may have to add a little more of the pasta water. Add 1 cup of the pasta water to the skillet and bring it to a simmer to deglaze the pan. Drain the pasta, then add it and the purée to the skillet. Cook for a few minutes to incorporate the sauce into the pasta. You’ll be able to see when the sauce has begun to thicken and has been absorbed into the pasta. Check the pasta to determine whether it’s fully cooked. Stir in the cheese and half of the asparagus tips, then season the dish to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the remaining tips over the top and serve immediately with additional cheese on the side. Makes enough sauce for 1 pound of pasta.
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