Stalking spring

If you want a concrete example of rebirth and the potential for new beginnings, just walk an asparagus field in early spring. What a few weeks before had been brown raw dirt is now studded with hundreds of bright green asparagus spears poking through. Over the past couple of weeks I've eaten asparagus for dinner at least three times. That may not seem like a lot, but when I say "eaten asparagus for dinner," that's just what I mean: My dinner was asparagus. OK, maybe some bread too. And a glass of wine (though asparagus can be a tough match, Navarro Gewurztraminer is perfect).

The first night, I boiled it and dressed it with just a little fruity olive oil, lemon juice and a generous sprinkling of crunchy sea salt. The next time, I steamed it and served it with a brown butter sauce and minced herbs. Then one night last week I repeated that dish but topped it with a softly fried egg — when you break the egg yolk, it flows out and combines with the brown butter to make a kind of deconstructed hollandaise. Be sure to serve any of these with plenty of buttered bread for sopping up the juices.

You get the picture.

This isn't just any asparagus, of course. Though the technique will work well with medium or even thin spears, to get the full effect (and to understand my insatiable hunger for them), you really need to try it with the jumbo asparagus.

These spears are about as big around as my thumb; only five or six make a whole pound. Cooked to the point of perfect tenderness, they have a texture somewhere between meat and butter. They almost melt when you chew them, with only a slight fibrous crunch remaining.

Cooking takes only about seven or eight minutes, no matter whether you're boiling or steaming them. To tell exactly when they're done, poke a spear with a paring knife; it should slide in easily. Once that happens, lift a spear and it should be just soft enough to sag slightly.

Asparagus this thick does need to be peeled (really thin asparagus, which I use for pastas and risottos, doesn't; medium asparagus can go either way).

You also need to cut away some of the base, which is dense and too chewy. Some cooks recommend holding the asparagus in two hands and snapping — they say it'll break where the spear turns tender. But in my experience, it always breaks well past that point; you'll wind up throwing away a pretty good bit of edible asparagus.

I'm greedy enough that that makes a difference. So I just cut off the very worst of the base — about 1 1/2 to 2 inches. To get rid of the last bit of toughness, peel the asparagus starting from the tip with a very light pressure and then gradually increase the pressure as you get to the base, where the toughest fibers are. Works every time.

Steamed Asparagus With Brown Butter Sauce

3 lbs. asparagus, thickest you can find

6 tablespoons butter

Juice of 1 lemon

3 tablespoons minced parsley

Sea salt

Cut off the tough bases of the asparagus about 1 1/2 inch from the bottom, leaving the stalks as close to equal in length as possible. (Discard the tough ends.) Peel the asparagus: Using a vegetable peeler, start about an inch below the tip area and peel toward the base, increasing the pressure as you go, so you take more peel at the tougher end. There should be no dark green peel left below the tip area.

Tie the asparagus in a bundle with cotton twine. Bring water to a boil in the bottom of a deep steamer. When the water is boiling rapidly, place the asparagus in the steamer basket and cover tightly. Cook until the asparagus is tender enough to be easily pierced with a sharp knife and wiggle slightly when shaken, 7 to 8 minutes.

While the asparagus is cooking, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the butter has begun to darken slightly and takes on a nutty color and aroma. Do not let the butter scorch. As soon as the butter has turned nutty brown, remove the pan from the heat and squeeze the juice of 1/2 of a lemon through a strainer into the butter. It will sizzle, so be careful. Taste and add more lemon if the flavor isn't sharp enough. Add about half the herbs and set aside.

When the asparagus is cooked, place a dish towel on a serving platter and lay the bundled spears on top. Cut the twine and let the asparagus roll free. Blot gently with the towel to remove any excess moisture.

Carefully remove the towel and pour the butter mixture over the asparagus. Toss gently with tongs to evenly coat with the butter. Sprinkle on the remaining herbs to taste and season generously with sea salt. Serve warm. Makes 6 servings.

Nutrients per serving: 129 calories; 3 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 12 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 31 mg. cholesterol; 2 grams sugar; 18 mg. sodium.

The Wichita Eagle—04/14/10

California Asparagus Sandwich

1/2teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/8teaspoon salt

1/3cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon olive oil

8 squares focaccia bread, 5x5 inches, or puffy pizza crust baked without toppings

1 1/2 cups (lightly packed) baby lettuces or arugula

1 cup roasted red bell pepper pieces

8 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced about 1/4-inch thick (may substitute regular mozzarella, provolone or mild Swiss)

16 cooked asparagus spears

4 slices pancetta or thick bacon cooked almost crisp and broken into 3-inch pieces

Have ingredients at room temperature. Make Lemon Aioli (flavored mayonnaise) by whisking together the lemon zest, juice and garlic, which has been slightly mashed with the salt (use a sharp knife tip on a cutting board). Whisk in the mayonnaise and olive oil. Spread on smooth side of each square of focaccia, using a generous 1/2 tablespoon.

Divide remaining ingredients among 4 squares focaccia, layered in the order listed. Top with remaining 4 squares focaccia. Cut each sandwich in half into two triangles.

Sandwiches can be served at room temperature or warm in a 450-degree oven a few minutes, especially if regular mozzarella was substituted for fresh. Sandwiches are not meant to be served hot. Makes 4.

The Wichita Eagle—04/14/10

Lemon Orzo With Roasted Asparagus

1 cup orzo

1 tablespoons grated lemon zest

1/4cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/4teaspoons salt

dash of coarsely ground pepper

1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

8 roasted asparagus spears

1/4cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside. Combine lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Slowly add oil to juice mixture, stirring constantly with a small whisk or fork, until well blended. Add to pasta and toss to coat. Cool to room temperature. Cut roasted asparagus into 1-inch pieces. Stir in asparagus, parsley and pine nuts. Makes 4 servings.

The Wichita Eagle—04/14/10