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Asparagus, a grill, a match for spring

Published: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Washington Post photo)
Blistered Asparagus. It doesnít get much more springlike than a grill, a bunch of asparagus and a light lemony dressing.

My asparagus convalescence – from a childhood spent eating the mushy, canned stuff – began late in my adolescence, when my mother boiled fresh spears, then napped them with homemade hollandaise.

The healing was not complete until years later, when I tasted grilled asparagus. Charred, tender yet crisp, it captured a flavor that, if I were in charge of the vegetable’s PR, I might call Springtime’s Essence. Its delicacy was deepened by a turn over the fire, giving its natural winsomeness a kind of side-dish gravitas.

To my mind, everything about spring is epitomized by asparagus. As is frequently the case with converts, I have become a bit militant on the subject. To me, if you don’t care for grilled asparagus, then you don’t like grilling and you don’t like asparagus.

The two were made for each other. Boiling, steaming, roasting – none of those methods complement the vegetable’s flavor like a wood or charcoal flame. This is the time of year when asparagus is at its best, and there is no better way of cooking it than putting the green spears on the grill and charring them. It’s a taste of spring that foreshadows summer.

One question that attends the grilling of asparagus is the same one that bedevils other forms of asparagus cooking: Thick or thin, which is better?

I once read a skinny stalk packed more asparagus punch than a fat one, with a texture that is generally less woody. So I selected only the most anorexic spears I could find.

In due time, consuming the baseball-bat-size things served at steak restaurants upended my skinny-asparagus fetish. If those could be as good as they were (and usually they weren’t even grilled), maybe everything I thought I knew was wrong. And maybe it is. But I now just choose whatever looks good.

That said, slender stalks can burn easily, turning what you hoped would be a nicely charred vegetable into an asparagus crisp. Fat shoots tend to require so much time on the grill to reach tenderness that their outsides can turn soft. Medium-size asparagus, I’ve found, takes well to charring while remaining crisp and tender.

A bigger factor than size is freshness. If the asparagus at hand is limp or its spear ends flake easily or any part of the stalk is wrinkled, I change dinner plans and choose a different vegetable.

Depending on my mood, I might get out the vegetable peeler. Peeling the stalk reveals a pretty, pale green that can seem almost translucent. I cannot vouch for a significant difference in taste (although I do think the flavor becomes less “field” and more “stream,” if that makes sense). But sometimes I just prefer that clean, stripped look.

The versatility of asparagus is yet another of its many virtues. I will never forget an asparagus risotto that my wife and I enjoyed in northern Italy, at once rich, light and bursting with the flavor of springtime. Grilling the asparagus enhanced my attempt to replicate the dish at home.

I go back and forth about cooking asparagus in a grill basket. Generally, I don’t, because I feel that grilling directly on the grate gives the stalks a uniform char. But sometimes I do, perhaps because I may be in a pinch for dinner and I don’t want to risk any casualties (spears falling into the fire).

I also love an asparagus soup as a starter to a meal that moves on to other springtime glories, such as lamb. In addition to grilling the stalks, I briefly smoke them to lend the soup a beguiling flavor note that adds complexity to the sprightly springtime taste.

But I most enjoy grilled asparagus, I think, with a simple drizzle of good extra-virgin olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a grind of black pepper. The problem is, I will then eat one stalk after the other, like potato chips. If I’m not careful, there won’t be any left for dinner.

I suppose, though, that my obsession can be seen as a form of recovery.

It doesn’t get much more springlike than a grill, a bunch of asparagus and a light lemony dressing. And this dressing is lemony: Add more olive oil if you wish to tone down the tartness.

Blistered Asparagus

4 appetizer or side-dish servings

1 pound asparagus, woody ends trimmed

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt

2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, or more as needed

Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them evenly under the cooking area. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 4 or 5 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly coat a large vegetable grill basket or fine-mesh grill screen with oil.

Spread the asparagus in the basket or on the screen and grill, uncovered, for about 5 minutes or until charred on all sides yet still firm. Transfer to a platter. (At this point, the asparagus can be covered with plastic wrap and kept at room temperature for several hours.)

Combine the lemon juice and salt in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in the 2 1/2 tablespoons of oil to form an emulsified dressing. Taste, and add more olive oil if desired.

When ready to serve, drizzle half of the dressing over the asparagus. Season with the pepper to taste. Toss to coat; serve at room temperature.

Nutrition per serving: 60 calories, 3 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 120 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar.

//Smoked Asparagus Soup//Special to The Washington Post.

Smoked Asparagus Soup

Makes about 12 cups(8 to 12 servings)

A charcoal fire and wood chips combine to give this elegant soup a smoky twist. For a classic springtime meal, enjoy it as an appetizer to a dinner of grilled salmon. Or serve it as an entree with crusty bread, a nice salad and a glass or two of white wine.

You’ll need to soak 1 cup of applewood chips in water for an hour before grilling.

MAKE AHEAD: The soup, without the cream or cheese, can be refrigerated a day in advance. Heat through in a large saucepan over low heat, stirring in the cream. Adapted from a 2003 episode of Emeril Lagasse’s “Emeril Live” show titled “Do Ahead Party.”

Ingredients

3 pounds fresh asparagus, preferably of medium thickness, rinsed

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1 cup chopped shallots

1 cup chopped leeks, whites only, well rinsed

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

8 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth

1/2 cup heavy cream (see headnote)

1/4 cup shaved or finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for garnish

Steps

Prepare the grill for direct and indirect heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the cooking area. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 4 or 5 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly coat a large vegetable grilling basket or fine-mesh grill screen with oil.

Drain the applewood chips and keep them near the grill.

Trim any woody asparagus ends. Spread the asparagus in the grilling basket or on the grill screen; place on the grate directly over the heat and grill until the asparagus is charred on all sides yet still firm, about 5 minutes, using tongs to turn the spears as needed.

Move the asparagus to the indirect-heat side of the grill. Scatter the drained wood chips onto the coals. Close the grill lid. Smoke until the asparagus turns just barely soft, about 5 minutes.

Transfer the asparagus to a cutting board. When it’s cool enough to handle, cut the spears into 1/2-inch pieces, reserving the tips separately.

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Once the butter starts to foam, add the shallots and leeks, stirring to coat. Cook for about 3 minutes, until tender, then add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the asparagus pieces (not the tips), salt, white pepper and the broth; cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the asparagus is quite tender. Remove from the heat.

Working in batches, transfer the mixture to a food processor and puree until smooth.

If serving right away, return the pureed soup to the pot. Stir in the cream and cook over medium-low heat until warmed through.

Divide among individual bowls. Garnish with some of the asparagus tips and the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

NUTRITION Per serving (based on 12): 120 calories, 5 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 190 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

//Charred Asparagus Risotto//Special to The Washington Post.

Charred Asparagus Risotto

4 servings

Risotto comes in many forms, but few capture the spirit of spring like this asparagus version, infused with the bright taste of lemon juxtaposed with the beguiling flavor of charcoal grilling.

MAKE AHEAD: You can grill the asparagus a day in advance. From Jim Shahin.

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds peeled and trimmed asparagus, preferably of medium thickness

Water

6 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth, warmed

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 cup minced sweet onion

2 cups arborio rice

1 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (from 1 large lemon)

1/2 cup shaved or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Sea salt or kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Steps

Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them evenly over the cooking area. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 4 or 5 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly coat a large vegetable grilling basket or fine-mesh grill screen with oil.

Spread 1 pound of the asparagus in the grilling basket or on the screen; place on the grate directly over the heat and grill until the asparagus is charred on all sides yet still firm, about 5 minutes, using tongs to turn the spears as needed. Transfer to a cutting board.

When the spears are cool enough to handle, cut them into 1-inch pieces, reserving the tips separately.

Grill the remaining 1/2 pound of asparagus (in the vegetable basket) until soft, for 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board.

When cool enough to handle, cut the entire spears crosswise into 1-inch pieces, transferring them to a blender or mini-food processor as you work. Add just enough water (about 2 tablespoons); puree for about 30 seconds until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and all of the oil in a medium pot over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, add the onion and stir to coat; cook until translucent, about 4 minutes, then add the rice and stir to coat. Cook for about 4 minutes until lightly toasted, stirring occasionally. Add the wine and cook until evaporated, about 2 minutes, stirring as needed.

Stir in the asparagus puree and the lemon zest, then immediately ladle a half-cup of the warm broth into the pot. Cook, stirring constantly, until the broth is fully absorbed before adding the next half cup. You might not need to add all the broth; the rice mixture should be creamy, with tender grains.

Add the cheese, the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the remaining asparagus pieces, stirring until well incorporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Divide among individual plates or wide, shallow bowls. Garnish each portion with a few of the reserved tips. Serve right away.

NUTRITION Per serving: 640 calories, 18 g protein, 83 g carbohydrates, 22 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 510 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar

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