Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Best Things You Probably Aren't Eating Yet: Asparagus

Spring is almost here.

I love it.  I've ordered seeds and plants for my gardens and yard, the sun stays out longer, the weather has a damp, rain-scented edge to it, and I feel myself come out of the shell that winter crowds me into.  And, off a few months in the distance, I hear the farmers' markets calling their siren song to me.

At the grocery stores, the seasons tend to be a few months ahead of us, because the food is transported from warmer climates.  That means that right about now, we are getting some of my favorite seasonal produce in the stores, and on some great deals.

A lot of veggies out there seem to be a "love it or hate it" kind of deal.  Green veg, in particular, seems to be a hard sell to some.  Just the word "asparagus" makes some people squirm.  But for me, it's spring in a stick. versatile, nutritious, and delicious.  No, it really is, I swear...give me a chance here!

I didn't grow up an asparagus fan.  Neither did my hubby.  Both of our mothers, to their credit, love asparagus.  However, back when we were kids, the trend was to serve it from a can or a jar.  So, hubby and I, each in our own way, were tortured with mushy, limp, bitter floppy sticks of disgusting asparagus.  It doesn't make for the best memories.

It really was too bad.  Asparagus is really good for you.  It has calcium, fiber, folic acid, vitamins A, B, and C, and, as an entertaining side note, it can make your pee smell weird.  Which for kids, is very entertaining.  Anything about pee pretty much is, right?  My family's cottage is smack in the middle of the asparagus capital of the US, in Oceana County, Michigan.  They have an asparagus festival every year.  I've learned wonderful Jeopardy-worthy facts, like that asparagus is actually part of the lily family.  The plants are beautiful, with their thin greens looking like clouds floating out in the field.  I remember watching a show on Food Network once where Alton Brown came across a u-pick asparagus field, where there was basically just a wooden bank and a knife, and went to town harvesting asparagus.  As a kid, I would have rather used the knife to put myself out of my misery.

Luckily, as an adult, I'm enamored with produce, and as spring came around each year, I would give more and more attention to the lovely green spears cropping up in the produce department.  I found that, whether it was because my palate matured, or it was just the different cooking methods I tried, I actually love asparagus.  I'll eat it raw.  I'll eat it shaved into little peelings.  I'll eat it steamed.  I'll eat it grilled.  I'll eat it in stir fry.  I do like it, Sam-I-Am!

And the hubby is on board too.  I'm going to share with you our favorite way to have asparagus: roasted.  It's very simple, and the sauce is straightforward.  The nutty, buttery, sweet and salty flavors in the sauce are a nice counter to the bitterness of the asparagus, which is flavorful and crunchy.  Hubby likes them almost burnt at the tips, but I like mine just before the tops start to brown.  My middle child loves the tops of asparagus, especially when the sauce is all caught up in the spaces between.  My other two kiddos prefer the sweeter bottoms of the stems, which is fine because it leaves more tops for the rest of us.

So, here's what you do:

Turn your oven to 400 degrees.  Grab a baking sheet and line it with parchment.  Grab a bunch of asparagus, and give them a rinse.  Asparagus grows best in sandy soil, so they can get some grit to them, and you want to rinse that off.  Shake off the water.

Trimming asparagus is really easy.  A great job for kids, because no knife is needed!  Grab the bottom of each spear, and snap it.  It will naturally snap off the woody bottom and leave you with a tender, more edible top.  Do this with the whole bunch of asparagus, and lay them in a single layer on your cookie sheet.  (I have 2 bunches here, because that's what my family goes through as a side for dinner.)

Then, take an oil mister (or a can of cooking spray) and give them a light mist of oil.  Grind some fresh pepper and sprinkle some salt over them.

Throw them in the oven for about 15-20 minutes, until the tops are a little bit brown.  You can adjust this to your oven's functioning and to your preference.  Or you can grill them, which, if you're going to do, I suggest spearing them with kebab sticks to make little asparagus rafts, otherwise they tend to fall through the grates.  While that's going, it's time to throw together the sauce.

In a small saucepan, melt some butter, about 2 tablespoons of it.  Keep it going on medium heat until it bubbles, and then until it starts to turn tan and smell more nutty.  Technically, I think this is called browning the butter.  All I know for sure is that it takes something awesome and makes it a different kind of awesome. Don't try to do it too fast, or you'll burn the butter...which is not awesome at all.

After the butter is browned, add a tablespoon or so each of good balsamic vinegar and soy sauce.  Warning: is will sizzle up when you put it in with the butter.  Don't be scared, it's totally fine.  Cook this for a couple more minutes, and it will become a nice syrupy consistency.  That's it.  Super easy. 

Drizzle the sauce over the asparagus.  I like to make sure to get it on the tops, where it sinks into the nooks and crannies.

And serve!  That's all.  Takes about 20 minutes, total.  If you have leftovers, they are great chopped up and thrown with some olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and some other veggies (tomatoes, artichoke hearts, peppers, whatever floats your boat) quickly sauteed and tossed with some pasta.   

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