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CHEERS FOR SPEARS
IT'S ASPARAGUS SEASON -- DON'T BALK AT THE STALK

By the stalk or by the bundle, fresh domestic asparagus is too good to pass up when it's in season, generally from March through early June, depending on the weather. There's no better time to eat your fill of tender, succulent spears that were grown right here in the USA.

At least once during the peak of the season, when the supply is greatest and prices the lowest, plan to have an "asparagus feed," a pound or two of perfect, tender young spears surrounded by classic accompaniments: lemon wedges, butter, Hollandaise, vinaigrette, salt and freshly ground pepper. Refrigerate any leftovers, for which there are many uses.

Even a handful of spears is enough to embellish whatever else is on the menu. For a quick, colorful appetizer or lunch, wrap a lightly steamed spear or two in a paper-thin slice of ham, turkey breast or smoked salmon. Marinate spears in vinaigrette, add a garnish of chopped hard-cooked eggs, and serve as a light lunch or dinner salad.

Chop a handful of tender spears and fold them into omelets, crepes or quiche. Toss some over a salad, hot pasta or rice, or add them to a stir-fry or a vegetable side dish that's nearly finished cooking. Lay a few perfect, raw spears on a hot grill just long enough to lightly char them, and use them as a garnish for grilled fish or poultry.

To get your money's worth from each stalk, remember to save the tough ends and any peel trimmings. Then simmer them into a flavorful stock for cream of asparagus soup. From appetizers through the main course, there's room in every part of the menu (except dessert) for fresh asparagus.

Choose stalks with bright green color over at least two-thirds of their length. Stalks should have flattened scales and tightly closed tips, and feel brittle-crisp. Avoid stalks with tips that have begun to separate, or ribbed or shriveled stalks.

At home, store the spears upright, with the cut ends in damp paper towels. Place in a plastic bag or container, and refrigerate. Use within a week.

To prepare asparagus for cooking, bend the bottom third of the stalk and allow it to snap clean at the most tender part. If the peel at the stem end or the scales seem tough, use a small, sharp knife to remove them; discard or use them for soup stock. If cooking the spears whole, trim them to a uniform length, saving any trimmings for stock. Or cut them diagonally into 1- or 2-inch pieces.

To steam asparagus, place stalks upright in a tall, narrow steamer or lay them on a steamer rack in a pan containing 1 to 2 inches of simmering water. Steam 4 to 6 minutes, or until barely tender when pierced with a sharp knife or fork tines. If asparagus will not be served immediately, plunge into ice water to halt the cooking, drain and pat dry. Cover and refrigerate.

To microwave, place the stalks in a microwave-proof container and add 1 tablespoon water per 8 ounces of asparagus. Cook approximately 4 to 5 minutes on high (100 percent power) and allow to stand 1 minute.

This stir-fry showcases two prime ingredients: a full pound of young asparagus and half a pound of tender beef strips. Serve small portions of the dish for a plated appetizer, or accompany it with a light soup and steamed rice for dinner.

Stir Fry of Asparagus and Beef

2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

2 tablespoons dry sherry

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon dark (roasted) sesame oil

1/2 pound tender lean beef, sliced into thin strips for stir-frying

1 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

1 to 2 tablespoons peanut or grapeseed oil

1 pound tender young asparagus (approximately 16 to 20 stalks), trimmed and sliced on the diagonal into 2-inch pieces
In a medium bowl, combine ginger, sherry, soy sauce and sesame oil. Add beef strips and toss in the mixture; cover, refrigerate and allow to marinate at least 30 minutes or up to several hours.

Drain beef well, reserving marinade. Combine marinade with enough cold water to make 1/3 cup. Dissolve cornstarch in this mixture; set aside.

Heat wok or large frying pan over high heat; add half of the peanut oil. Add asparagus and stir-fry over medium heat, tossing just until pieces are heated through and their color brightens. Remove from wok; set aside.

Add remaining oil to wok. Add beef; stir-fry until meat loses its raw color, about 1 minute. Add reserved marinade mixture to pan. Increase heat to high; cook until sauce begins to thicken and turn glossy. Add reserved asparagus to wok, tossing to mix with beef and sauce; cook 30 seconds more, or until beef is done to taste. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6 with other dishes.