I hope that the beginning of spring has renewed everyone’s spirits as more and more of us get vaccinated and venture outdoors. I love early spring — the air smells wonderful, the tulips are poking up through the warmed ground, my rhubarb is already a foot tall, and now, when we sneeze, it means allergies and not anything else!
Everyone feels a little healthier when spring comes around and the urge to eat healthier surges with the fresh spring vegetables so abundant in the markets.
When I was a kid, my dad had the most amazing vegetable garden. Everything he grew was perfect and he grew every vegetable from A (apple trees) to Z (zucchini). We had a huge blueberry bush growing beside the garage and all kinds of vegetables in the garden.
Two large apple trees grew in the side yard and a huge rhubarb patch grew alongside the house. Raspberries and strawberries grew in the backyard, and next to the fence separating our yard from the neighbor’s was my father’s asparagus patch. That patch was sacred. We had to be careful that we did not open the gate too far, throw a ball near there or step anywhere close to the baby asparagus.
My father tended that asparagus patch with loving care. He watched the asparagus grow for three long years, never harvesting a single pencil- thin stalk, and always explaining that asparagus has to grow for three years to establish itself before harvesting.
The fourth year came and we waited and waited. But a cold rainy summer yielded about 5 skinny stalks. The next summer, however, found us with a bumper crop of thick, sweet asparagus and we needed recipes to use up the harvest. Quiches, pies, soups and salads came out of my mother’s kitchen and then the asparagus was gone — and we were thrilled! However, asparagus still remains one of my favorite early signs of spring and one of my favorite vegetables.
Some Asparagus Factoids
Asparagus is a member of the lily family and is related to onions, leeks and garlic. It likes very sandy soil and needs to grow for three years before it can be harvested. After that, it will usually produce for about 15 years and can produce 1 to 2 tons per acre of land.
Though we often look for thin stalks, it is actually the thicker stalks that are sweeter and more tender, although thicker stalks do need to be trimmed and the ends peeled. Asparagus has one of the highest folic acid contents of any veggie, it is easy to prepare, and can be used in many dishes from appetizers to soups, salads and main dishes.
Asparagus has only 4 calories per stalk and each 5-ounce serving has 3 grams of fiber. The Michigan Asparagus Board called it “one of the most nutritionally balanced vegetables in the world.”
So grab some new spring asparagus and enjoy!
Asparagus Soup with Leeks and Shallots (Dairy)
You can lighten this soup by using milk instead of cream. This will make a thinner soup with much less fat and fewer calories. You can also leave out all the dairy and substitute olive oil for the butter and more stock for the milk and cream for a delicious pareve soup. Pan roasting the asparagus brings out the sweetness of the vegetable.
1 lb. asparagus
4 Tbsp. butter
8 shallots, minced, about 1/2 cup
1 cup chopped leeks, white and very light green parts only
1 Tbsp. flour
5 cups vegetable stock or water (stock can be purchased)
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup milk (2% or whole; skim doesn’t work)
1/2 cup light cream (use whole milk here for lighter soup)
Salt and pepper to taste
OPTIONAL: 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
Cut the tops off of the asparagus (about 1-1/2 inches) and set aside for garnish.
Melt half the butter in a large sauce pan (2-3 quarts) and sauté the shallots and leeks until they are translucent and just beginning to brown.
Cut the asparagus stalks into inch-long pieces and add to the shallots. Sauté until the asparagus begins to soften and turn golden in some spots, 3-5 minutes. Add the flour and stir constantly for one minute more. Add the stock and stir well, until the flour is absorbed into the liquid. Add the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Bring to a low boil and cover, reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 25 minutes.
Cool for 10 minutes and then process the soup either with an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender on the highest, puree, setting. At this point, you can pour the soup through a sieve for a very smooth consistency or just pour it directly into a clean saucepan. Add the milk and or cream and heat through, but do not boil. Add salt and pepper, taste and adjust seasonings as desired.
While the soup is reheating, add the butter to a sauté pan and add the asparagus tops. Sauté until tender, 3 to 5 minutes, depending on thickness of asparagus stalks.
Once the soup is heated, whisk the cream into the soup and pour into bowls. Garnish with the asparagus tops and grated cheese. Makes about 2 quarts
Asparagus Parmesan en Croute (Dairy)
16 stalks asparagus (more for more people at 4 per person)
1 package phyllo dough, 1 roll thawed, the other saved for another time
1/3 cup melted butter
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
Mix the parmesan with the garlic and onion powders in a small bowl and set aside. Trim the ends of the asparagus wash and dry thoroughly. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Take one sheet of phyllo dough and lightly brush it with butter. Fold the sheet in half lengthwise and butter the top. Fold in half again lengthwise and brush the top with butter. Cut into 4 equal pieces.
Sprinkle the phyllo with a tablespoon of the cheese mix and place 4 stalks of asparagus at one long end of the phyllo. Roll up jelly roll style and pinch the seam closed. Place, seam side down on a cookie sheet. Brush the tops of the phyllo with a bit of butter and sprinkle with more parmesan and the sesame seeds.
Continue with the rest of the asparagus and phyllo. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown. This makes a lovely side dish with fish. Serves 4.
NOTE: To make this as an appetizer, use two stalks of asparagus in each bundle and maker 8 pieces of phyllo using the other sheet of dough if needed and more cheese and spices. .
Asparagus with Cherry Tomatoes and Pasta (Pareve OR Dairy)
This is a delicious and simple spring pasta dish. Sometimes, I roast the cherry or grape tomatoes for a smoky sweet taste.
1 tbs. good quality olive oil
1 -2 garlic cloves, minced
2 shallots, minced
1-2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
1-1/2 cup asparagus tips (top 2 inches or so) the rest cut into 1-inch pieces
I pkg. or 12 ounces any pasta (angel hair works well, as does penne)
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley chopped
1/3 -1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
OPTIONAL: dried crushed red pepper flakes
Heat the oil over medium heat and add the minced garlic and shallots. Cook until translucent. Add the cut tomatoes and heat until the tomatoes soften, about 3 minutes. Add the asparagus stalk pieces (not the tips) nd cook until bright green and crisp tender, about 4-5 minutes. Add the asparagus tops and cook another 3 minutes until they turn bright green and are also crisp tender. Add the parsley, salt and pepper, toss well.
Meanwhile cook the pasta according to directions. Drain thoroughly and place in a large pasta bowl. Add the vegetables and the grated cheese if you like and toss. Serve with crusty sourdough bread.
VARIATIONS: Add 3/4 cups sliced black olives to the tomatoes before you add the asparagus. OR add 2 tablespoons capers after you add the asparagus. Reduce or eliminate salt if you use olives or capers. Add more cheese, if desired.
Asparagus with Orange and Sesame (Pareve)
This is delicious with grilled salmon!
1 lb. asparagus, ends trimmed
1 Tbsp. olive oil
3 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press
2 scallions, white part and about 2 inches of green, minced
1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp. soy or tamari sauce
2 tsp. toasted sesame seeds
Steam the asparagus until it is bright green and crisp tender, about 3-6 minutes depending on thickness of stalks. When done, place under cold water to stop cooking process.
Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the shallots and scallions. Stir and heat a minute, then add the garlic and ginger. Stir often and cook until soft, 4 to 6 minutes. Add the orange juice, lemon juice and soy or tamari sauce. Cook until liquid is reduced by one third or about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Place the cooled asparagus in a shallow baking dish and pour the sauce over. Toss to mix thoroughly. Add the sesame seeds, toss and chill for about 30 minutes, or overnight. Garnish with orange slices or drained, canned mandarin orange segments. Serves 4 to 6.