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I know the growing season is really under way once I see bundles of asparagus starting to crop up on vendors’ tables at my local farmers market. In spring the shoots are all small and thin, but by summer I’m filling my bags with beautiful robust bundles.
A lot of people aren’t fans of this vegetable—or at least they think they’re not, possibly because they grew up as I did in a family where “cooking” a vegetable meant you should just about be able to drink it through a straw by the time you were done. I remember many meals of sad, droopy asparagus, nearly liquid broccoli, and green bean paste. Now I’d never subject those poor veggies to that kind of terrible mistreatment!
Now that I know how to cook asparagus (and all of its green kin) properly, I’m a convert. (If, on the other hand, you aren’t a fan of asparagus because of the, uh, rather unusual side effects of eating it, there’s not much I can do for you.)
How to shop for asparagus
Be careful when shopping for asparagus: if you see that those little leaf-looking bits at the tip have started to open up, put that bundle back and look for a different one. Those “leaves” are actually modified parts of the stem and not leaves at all, despite the way they look. Once they start to unfurl, that’s a signal that the spear is going to start turning woody. Woody asparagus is not delicious asparagus – keep looking for the perfect parcel of spears, and be picky!
How to cook asparagus
Asparagus makes a delicious side dish all year long – sautéed in butter or olive oil, thrown on the grill in a tinfoil packet next to the brats, roasted in the oven with oil and black pepper. But when I first see those little spears gracing the tables at the farmers market, or in my first box of CSA produce of the year, I like to put asparagus at the center of the meal. It’s fun to try to plan a meal around a vegetable instead of a meat or bean, and making the asparagus the entrée gives me an excuse to eat even more of it than I’d otherwise get to.
One of my favorite aspara-centric meals is asparagi alla Milanese: Milanese-style asparagus. This works out especially well in our house this year, since this is the first time we’ll be getting a biweekly egg share in addition to our usual produce boxes. While scrambled eggs are all well and good, sometimes we need to branch out.
Asparagi alla Milanese
1 bunch asparagus (~1 lb)
6 fresh eggs
Butter or vegetable spread
Splash of white wine
Splash of lemon juice
2/3 cup of grated parmesan cheese (or whatever appropriate substitute you prefer)
I like to serve this with something starchy on the side—oftentimes that works out to be some al dente penne pasta with a sprinkle of olive oil, garlic, and the cheese du jour; or maybe a scoop of couscous cooked in chicken broth. Today, though, I bought a loaf of the Hot and Spicy Cheese Bread from a local bakery called Stella’s, and that will be playing the role of “delicious carbs” in today’s meal.
Put a pan over medium heat, and add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil. While the oil is warming, add a splash of lemon juice and a splash of your favorite white wine. (A local winery, Wollersheim, sells a few of their wines in mini four-packs; one of the mini-bottles is perfect to use a splash of here and still leave one generous glass, or two small glasses, if I feel like sharing.)
Sauté the asparagus in the lemony, wine-y oil. Don’t let the spears get overcooked – when they’re done, they should still have some spine to them. If you pick an asparagus spear up by the base and it flops over in your hand, you have done yourself and your meal a grave disservice! Use the changing color and texture of the asparagus as a guide: it should become darker, and softer and more bendable (but not floppy!), when it’s ready.
Depending on how dexterous you feel in the kitchen, you can cook the eggs simultaneously, or cover the asparagus and set it aside once it’s ready. Put another tablespoon of oil in a pan and heat it up on medium to high heat. Crack 2 of your eggs into a small bowl, and pour them gently into the pan one at a time. Turn the heat down to low, and let your eggs cook until the whites have firmed up and the yolks have started to set. Then carefully flip them and cook the other side.
When the eggs are done, lay one flat on a plate, then sprinkle on some of the shredded cheese. (True Milanese style uses parmesan cheese for this step, but forgive me, Italian readers: I am hardcore Wisconsin and I prefer the recipe with a soft, creamy cheese like butterkase instead.) Then lay a few of the asparagus spears on top of the egg– four or five is a pretty typical number for me, depending on the spears’ size. Layer a second egg on top to make yourself an egg/asparagus sandwich, and top the whole thing with another sprinkle of cheese and some ground pepper. Serve with your pasta, grain, or bread (here you can see our Stella’s bread, as it is intended to be, torn into “rustic pieces”, which is the polite way to describe our traditional method of gobbling it up by the handful.)