Live it: Nothing screams spring like asparagus

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Few things say “springtime” better than asparagus. The arrival of these slender green spears signals the end of winter and the start of a new growing season brimming with fresh produce.
The reputation of asparagus as a delicacy extends back to ancient times. The Romans valued it so much that Emperor Diocletian in the Fourth Century is said to have issued an order setting a ceiling on the price that could be charged for it. In Renaissance Europe, asparagus was grown solely for the tables of the nobility. It wasn’t until the 1700s that asparagus became widely available to the general public, firmly establishing its popularity as one of the finest of vegetables.
Nowadays asparagus is available year-round but there’s still something special about enjoying it in spring, when the stalks are in their prime.

Asparagus basics

When buying asparagus, choose smooth stalks with tightly closed tips.
Although it’s best cooked within a day of purchasing, it can also be stored in the refrigerator for up to five days. Place stalks upright in a container with about an inch of water, or wrap ends in a damp paper towel, place in a paper bag and store in the vegetable crisper.
To prepare asparagus for cooking, swish in cool water to remove any sand. Remove the woody bottom by bending each spear at its natural breaking point and snapping off the end.
For serving, plan on 6 to 8 stalks per person.

Perfectly steamed asparagus

Steaming is the simplest preparation of all for fresh asparagus. You may be lucky enough to have an asparagus steamer that holds the spears upright so the delicate tips aren’t overcooked. If you don’t, an ordinary vegetable steamer also works fine.
Add about an inch of water to the bottom of a pot large enough to hold a steamerful of asparagus. Bring to a boil. Place 1 to 1½ pounds asparagus in steamer and place steamer in pot. Turn down heat slightly and steam, covered, until asparagus is crisp-tender and the thickest part of the stalk is cooked through, 2 to 6 minutes. Test for doneness by piercing a stalk with a sharp knife; the knife should slide easily into the stalk.
While still hot, toss with butter and a pinch of salt and pepper.

Over-Roasted asparagus

Roasting is an easy and delicious way to intensify the flavor of asparagus. The amount of time in the oven depends on the thickness of the spears.
1 pound fresh asparagus, washed and trimmed
olive oil
coarse salt
freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Spread asparagus in a single layer in a shallow ovenproof pan. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Stir lightly to coat. Roast in oven, stirring occasionally, until browned and cooked through, anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.

Springtime Asparagus Tart in a Brioche Crust

This quiche-like tart is a lighter-flavored adaptation of an Annie Somerville recipe in “Fields of Greens.” Don’t be intimidated by the yeasted crust. Although some extra time and planning are involved, this buttery dough is simple to put together and doesn’t require kneading. The asparagus filling can be prepared while the dough is rising.
The tart can be served hot or at room temperature for a brunch, light lunch or casual supper.

Yeasted tart dough
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
pinch of sugar
1/4 cup warm (110 degrees F.) water
about 1 cup unbleached white flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg at room temperature
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
Dissolve yeast and sugar together in the water and set in a warm place for a few minutes, until bubbles form. Combine flour and salt in a bowl and make a well in the center. Break the egg into the well, then add softened butter and pour in yeast mixture. Mix with a wooden spoon to form a soft, smooth dough. Dust it with flour, gather into a ball and cover with plastic wrap or a dish towel. Let rise in a warm place until almost doubled in bulk, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Asparagus filling
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup chopped shallots
salt and pepper
1/2 pound asparagus, ends removed, cut diagonally into 1-inch lengths, about 1½ cups
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chervil or flat-leaf parsley
3 large eggs
1½ cups half-and-half
zest of 1 lemon, minced
2 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated, about 1 cup
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add shallots, ¼ teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. Saute over medium heat until the shallots soften, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the asparagus, ¼ teaspoon salt and another pinch of pepper and cook until the asparagus is tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove skillet from heat, stir in fresh herbs and additional salt and pepper to taste, and set aside to cool.
Whisk together the eggs, add the half-and-half, ¼ teaspoon salt, a pinch of pepper and the lemon zest. Whisk again lightly to combine.
To bake:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Flatten the yeasted dough, place it in the center of a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom and press it out to the edges and up the sides, using the heel of your hand or your knuckles. You may need to dust the dough lightly with flour a couple of times to prevent sticking.
Layer the grated cheese across the bottom of the uncooked tart, followed by the asparagus mixture. Place the tart pan on a baking sheet, pour in the custard and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the custard is golden and set.

Anne Polta is Live it! Magazine's resident foodie. Anne may be reached at apolta@wctrib.com or follow her on Twitter @AnnePolta