Springtime Shabbat: Asparagus Three Ways

By Danielle Frum

It's admittedly awkward to confess that my middle-aged self thrills at the sight of the first asparagus to arrive in my local farmer's market. My embarrassment is somewhat mitigated by the thrill of my children at same. Nothing says spring more than bunches of new asparagus heaped on rickety wooden frames. Ramps don't really count. I'll take zucchini blossoms as a runner up. But asparagus! Ahhh...

The problem with asparagus is that if you're going to do it right, it takes a little work. Nothing is more disheartening -- from an asparagus aficionados' view -- than a boiled, undercooked, and unpeeled stalk. I don't know where the fashion for undercooking vegetables arose, but it's especially unpleasant when it comes to woody types of vegetables such as asparagus. If you're dealing with a thickish stalk, you need to break it in half and shave it down from its head, or else you're going to be left with something akin to chewing on a stick. The ready-to-cook version should resemble a Marine standing at attention -- the entire body peeled and sinewy topped by a jar head. Pencil-thin asparagus doesn't need to be peeled, but it, like its thicker compadres, needs to be broken in a brutish way -- don't just try to break off the bottom tip but let it separate where the toughness dictates, sometimes as much as half or more of the whole stalk.

Here is broken asparagus, untrimmed v trimmed:

Once you have done this you will be justly rewarded with the sweetest and most tender asparagus you have ever tasted. For our Shabbat celebration of this fleeting spring vegetable, I've included two basic side recipes and one main course recipe.

  1. Asparagus with Lemon and Butter

Serves 4.

2 lbs fresh asparagus, trimmed and peeled as directed below
1/4 cup unsalted butter
The juice of one lemon
Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste

Rinse the asparagus and break each stalk where it naturally severs from its tough base. Don't be a hero and try to preserve the whole stalk. You may be surprised at how short the resulting trimmed stalks are -- but all of it will be super tender when cooked. Bundle the stalks and secure with twine or an elastic band.

Bundled asparagus ready to be plunged into boiling water:

Meanwhile fill an asparagus pot with salted water and bring to a boil. Place the bundled  aspargus into the strainer and lower it into the boiling water. Depending on the freshness, it should only take 2-5 minutes to cook. You want it soft but not mushy. Strain and remove to a mixing bowl when done. Toss with the butter, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Arrange on a platter and serve immediately.

  1. Roasted Asparagus

This is the supreme and lazy way to cook asparagus. You don't even have to peel it. You can rinse, break and toss it in a roasting pan and your guests will be convinced that you are the greatest chef since Escoffier. Just please don't reveal how easy it is.

Serves 4

2 lbs fresh asparagus
1/8 c olive oil
Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste
Juice of one lemon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Break the aspargus at its natural point, ensuring you remove all of the tough stem. Toss with olive oil and grindings of the pepper and salt. Distribute evenly in a heavy roasting pan.

Roast until browned and tender, approx 20 min depending on the thickness of the asparagus. Turn and check for doneness halfway through.

When ready, remove from the oven, squeeze over the lemon juice, check for seasonings, and serve immediately.

  1. Spring Risotto with Asparagus, Morels and Baby Peas

Serves 4.

This is essentially a one course meal perfect for Shabbat, You can enhance it by adding a side salad, but truly it isn't needed.

1 oz dried morels
2 oz fresh morels, rinsed and roughly chopped
1 lb fresh asparagus
2 tb olive oil
2 tb butter
½ c chopped onion
1 cup frozen baby peas
1 cup Vermouth
1 1/2 cup Arborio rice
Zest of one lemon
¼ cup crème fraiche
 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano
Freshly ground salt and pepper to taste

Soak dried mushrooms in 2 cups boiling water for at least 30 min. When ready, drain but preserve stock. Thoroughly rinse the dried mushroms and roughly chop. Set aside.

Meanwhile bring another large saucepan, with 3 cups of water, to boil.  Peel the aspargus up to their heads and chop into 1/4-inch rounds, leaving the heads intact. Blanche heads in the boiling water until just tender, about  a minute or so. Drain the asparagus but preserve the water: bring it to a gentle boil.

In another deep heavy saucepan, preferably cast iron, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat, and saute the chopped onion until soft. Add dried and fresh mushrooms and chopped asparagus. Saute for two minutes more and then add the risotto. Saute for another minute, stirring constantly, and then add the Vermouth.

When the Vermouth has evaporated, begin adding the reserved mushroom broth in increments. Don't add more until the previous increment has been absorbed. 

When the mushroom broth is gone begin ladeling the asparagus water in similar increments, waiting until each ladelful is absorbed before adding the next.

When the risotto is nearly cooked (it will start to look like it is swimming in its own broth and be al dente to taste), add the frozen peas.  Give it a minute or two more and then toss in the blanched asparagus heads.

Remove from the heat and add in the creme fraiche, lemon zest and Parmesan. Combine until well mixed and serve immediately.

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