Chef Sara Moulton says she first ate raw asparagus during the 1980s at an Italian restaurant in New York.
“Someone else must have pushed me to order it because until then, the only asparagus I'd ever encountered was steamed and buttered, and I really liked it just that way. Raw asparagus? Must be bland and boring,” says Moulton, who has had a show on the Food Network and is the author of numerous cookbooks.
This raw asparagus, however, was the centerpiece of a salad dressed with fresh lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. It turned out to be crunchy, flavorful and refreshing.
Raw is only one of the ways to use this versatile veggie. Lately, cooks have been thinking of more ways to prepare asparagus beyond steaming the green stalks: risotto in the pressure cooker, for example, or oven-fried with a nutty crust.
Asparagus, a member of the lily family, is always among the first items that show up at local farmers markets, so be on the lookout for it in a month or so.
In the meantime, if you buy it at the grocery store, look for asparagus that's stored vertically, stem down in ice or water. They're probably not in great shape if you find them stacked sideways and on top of each other, so keep looking. Make sure the tips are tight and smooth, not open and feathery, and that the stalks are firm and smooth.
Size doesn't really matter — it tastes the same whether stalks are thick or thin.
Nutritionwise, asparagus is high in folic acid and is a good source of potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C and thiamin, according to the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board. It has no fat, no cholesterol and little sodium.
For her salad, Moulton recommends using thicker-stemmed asparagus. She adds button mushrooms, which are delicious raw and are quite affordable. Be sure to purchase only the firmest, whitest, tightest specimens. Add leaves of fresh flat-leaf parsley, not merely as a garnish, but as a full partner to the other ingredients. In fact, almost any fresh herb — including parsley, basil, mint, cilantro, chives, chervil or dill — can play a similarly robust role in a salad.
She also includes her favorite nut, pistachios.
“I love them for their flavor, but — at only 4 calories per nut — they're also a boon to the diet-conscious,” she says. “Of course, you could swap in walnuts, almonds, cashews or pecans if you wanted. They're all sources of healthy fat.”
Topped off with grilled chicken or shrimp, she adds, this spring salad could be dinner.
The same could be said for the asparagus risotto, a tedious dish that's made easier when you use a pressure cooker.
That once-scary kitchen appliance simplified the process and — most impressively — sped it up. What normally takes 45 minutes in a traditional saute pan is ready to serve in about 20. Because the lids clamp on and create a pressured, steam-driven environment, pressure cookers allow you to cook at higher temperatures. Normal boiling or steaming cooking methods max out around 212 F, the boiling point of water. Pressure cookers allow for water (as steam) to be superheated, reaching as high as 250 F.
The result is a moist, quick method of cooking that produces deliciously tender meats in little time. And modern pressure cookers are very safe — forget those horror stories about explosions.
This risotto recipe, from chef and food writer Elizabeth Karmel, is simple and delicate because she wanted it to showcase the asparagus. But it would be easy to add a touch of garlic, your favorite mushrooms and even tender spring peas.
“The second time I made it, I added porcini mushroom powder and it was divine, resulting in a bolder, more umami-filled risotto without any mushroom slices,” Karmel says. “I have never had so much fun making risotto. Now that I have the hang of using the pressure cooker, I can't wait to tackle short ribs, chicken Marbella, whole stuffed artichokes and grits, too — anything that normally takes hours and/or lots of stirring to make!”