Asparagus Tips

In Washington, May is the dawning of the age of asparagus.

STORY AND PHOTOS BY PAOLA THOMAS

There is no more welcome harbinger of a Pacific Northwest spring than seeing heaped bundles of fresh purple-green Washington asparagus in farmers markets and supermarkets. Though asparagus is available year-round nowadays, I still always wait for our local asparagus to arrive before embarking on a short-lived frenzy of asparagus cooking and eating. Washington asparagus seems to have more complexity and depth of flavor than its hot-housed, well-traveled counterparts, and America apparently agrees with me, as our state is now the number one producer of asparagus in the nation.

Asparagus may be a little more expensive than other vegetables, but that becomes understandable when you realize that it takes two years for a plant to start producing, and that every delicate spear is painstakingly, back-breakingly, cut by hand. We are lucky to have so many farms close to home, as the fresher the asparagus is, the sweeter it will taste. If you can’t cook your precious spears straight away, treat them like a bunch of flowers (they are related to lilies, after all) and store them with the stems dipped in a jar of water.

Asparagus, mushroom, and tarragon lasagne

Serves: 4–6  | start to finish: 1 hour 15 minutes, including baking time (active time: 40 minutes)

The delicate creaminess of dairy showcases that bright, clean, asparagus taste like nothing else, while asparagus’s earthy qualities make mushrooms a perfect pairing. Piquant tarragon adds another fresh, quintessentially spring-like note, and together, they make for a vegetarian lasagne that is surprisingly light and uncloying.

Assembling the lasagne is a little time-consuming, but not difficult, and the whole dish can be prepared, and even frozen, in advance and easily scaled for a bigger gathering. This is the perfect place to use those packs of fresh lasagne noodles you can find at the supermarket, but boxed, dried noodles will also work. Homemade noodles would be sublime.

For the asparagus filling

  • 2 pounds asparagus
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 medium shallots, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 8 ounces sliced mushrooms
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons tarragon, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper

 

For the white sauce (besciamella)

  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
  • 1/2 cup +1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

 

To assemble the lasagne

  • Butter to grease the pan
  • 9 sheets lasagne noodles
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

 

Snap the woody ends off the asparagus, discard them, and chop the remaining spears into 2-inch lengths. Heat oil and butter in a large skillet and sauté shallots over medium heat until very soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, asparagus, and mushrooms, and cook gently, stirring frequently, until all vegetables are fork tender, about 15 minutes. You may need to divide the vegetables between two skillets, at least initially. Sprinkle vegetables with lemon juice, add tarragon, and season to taste. Set aside.

While the asparagus is cooking, make the white sauce. Melt butter in a medium saucepan and stir in flour to make a roux. Cook gently for 2 minutes, then add a splash of milk. Using a whisk, make sure the milk is fully incorporated into the roux and you have a thick paste. Whisk the remaining milk, bit by bit, into the roux until everything is fully incorporated, Bring to a boil, whisking continuously and cooking gently until the sauce has thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove sauce from the heat and stir in cream, nutmeg, and salt.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the fresh pasta, 3 sheets at a time, and parboil them 1–3 minutes, until silky. Then remove from the water with tongs. Lay them out in a single layer on a clean kitchen towel.

Generously butter a deep 11-inch x 7-inch baking dish and spread a couple of tablespoons of the white sauce over the bottom. Lay three pasta sheets over the sauce. Spread a third of the asparagus mixture over the lasagne sheets and spoon over a third of the white sauce. Sprinkle with a third of the Parmesan. Repeat these layers twice more, finishing with a layer of Parmesan.

Bake 30–35 minutes or until the top is golden and bubbling.

Springtime risotto with asparagus and shrimp

Serves: 4–6  | start to finish: 1 hour, including cooking time (active time: 40 minutes) 

This ethereal risotto bursts with fresh herbs and garden vegetables and owes its depth of flavor to a quick and easy broth, extracted from asparagus trimmings and shrimp shells, that can easily be made ahead of time and reserved until you are ready to start making the risotto. Italians rarely add cheese to seafood dishes, as it can be overpowering, so this risotto relies on the addition of butter at the end of cooking to make it extra rich and creamy. Risotto doesn’t like to wait around, so start cooking the rice about 30 minutes before you are ready to serve it.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound asparagus
  • 16 medium shell-on shrimp
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 large shallots, finely chopped
  • 1 large leek, finely sliced
  • 1 1/2 cups carnaroli or arborio rice
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 cup English peas, fresh or frozen
  • 1/2 cup dry white vermouth or dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped chives

 

For the shrimp asparagus broth

Place 6 cups of hot water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Prepare asparagus by snapping off the tough ends. Separate the spears from the ends and slice them into 2-inch pieces. Add shrimp to the boiling water, standing by with a slotted spoon or strainer. Fish out the shrimp as soon as they turn pink (this will take less than a minute). Add asparagus ends to the boiling water. As soon as the shrimp are manageable, peel them and set the flesh aside, returning the shells to the boiling water. Simmer broth for at least 20 minutes, and then set aside, keeping shells and asparagus ends in the broth until you are ready to make the risotto. Just before making the risotto, strain broth through a sieve, pushing shrimp shells and asparagus ends against the mesh with the back of a ladle to extract all the flavor. Keep broth covered and on a low simmer while you make the risotto. 

For the risotto

In a deep-sided sauté pan, heat olive oil and butter and sauté shallots and leeks until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in rice until coated with oil. Add reserved chopped asparagus spears. Cook for about a minute and then add a ladleful of asparagus and shrimp broth to the rice. Stir and cook until absorbed. Keep cooking the rice and vegetables on a gentle heat, continually adding ladlefuls of hot broth and stirring until the liquid is absorbed before adding the next ladleful. Continue in this way until all of the broth is gone, and the rice and asparagus are tender. If you run out of broth but the rice still has a bite, continue adding hot water until the rice is fully cooked.

When the rice is ready, stir in the vermouth or wine, peas, and shrimp meat, and cook for about 2 minutes until everything is warmed through. Remove risotto from heat, top with butter, cover with a lid, and leave the risotto to steam and absorb the butter for a minute or two. Adjust the seasoning, stir in chopped herbs, and serve immediately

Roasted asparagus and salmon frittata

Serves: 4–6  | start to finish: 40 minutes, including cooking time

This substantial frittata is packed with layer upon layer of flavor and makes for a splendid brunch or family supper. A frittata is the perfect place to use up leftovers, and if you’re baking salmon and potatoes one evening, cook a little extra so you can easily whip this frittata up the following day. It’s also a wonderful way to use up leftover cooked asparagus, though that is as rare as unicorns’ teeth in our house.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound asparagus
  • 4 ounces salmon (or smoked salmon)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 pound small potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 medium shallots, finely chopped
  • 4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
  • 8 eggs, whisked in a medium-sized bowl
  • 1/2 cup Gruyere, grated
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan, finely grated
  • 1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon dill, finely chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

 

Recipe

Pre-heat oven to 400°F

Snap the woody ends off asparagus, place the spears on a baking sheet, and sprinkle with olive oil and sea salt. Stir asparagus until they are coated with oil, place the salmon (if using fresh) skin side down on the baking sheet and  roast 15–20 minutes until just tender.

In the meantime, if you are not using leftover cooked potatoes, place potatoes in a medium saucepan in about 1/2 inch of water. Season with salt, cover the pan, and steam 15–20 minutes until just tender. Drain and set aside to cool.

Chop the roasted asparagus into 2-inch pieces, thickly slice the potatoes, and flake the salmon. In the skillet used to cook the salmon, heat butter and olive oil. Add shallots and sauté until soft and golden, about 4 minutes. Stir in chopped asparagus and potatoes. Scatter the salmon and feta over the asparagus and potatoes and make sure everything is evenly distributed in the pan. Stir Gruyere, parsley, and dill into the whisked eggs and season with salt and pepper. Pour the egg mixture over the other ingredients, making sure that the mixture gets into all the nooks and crannies. Cook on the stovetop over a gentle heat until puffy and almost set through the middle (test it with a knife), 15–20 minutes.

Preheat broiler to high. Sprinkle frittata with Parmesan and place under the broiler for about 5 minutes, until the top is golden and bubbling.

Cut into wedges and serve.


Paola is a food photographer who loves to eat and greets the advent of Washington asparagus with the sort of excitement normal humans reserve for a long lost relative. Find her at paolathomas.com

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