June 3, 2013

Asparagus is a spring vegetable and flowering perennial plant. It is a cousin to onions and garlic and is native to northern Africa, western Asia and most of Europe.

In the grocery stores, we can look forward to fresh asparagus from February to June. Typically garden fresh asparagus in Iowa grows from about April to the beginning of June.

When I was young, I remember riding in the car with my mom in the late spring along dusty gravel roads as she searched for ditch asparagus. She used to keep a sharp knife and handmade map in her glove compartment just in case we were in the area.

When looking for fresh asparagus in the produce section, look for bright green stalks without any sign of shriveling. The tips may have a purplish hue, but should be firm and tight.

To store asparagus, trim the cut ends, stand them in a glass of water, cover with plastic, and refrigerate for up to a few days until you are ready to eat it.

Once you are ready to prepare it, cut off the tough ends. If the shoots are fresh, only an inch or so is necessary.

Balsamic Asparagus and Cherry Tomato Salad

If you're trying to eat more salads, but would like to change things up a bit, try asparagus instead of lettuce. This salad is tangy, yet sweet and is worth only 1 Weight Watchers point per serving.

1 1/2 lbs uncooked asparagus

1 cup fresh cherry tomatoes, cut in half

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons unsweetened orange juice

1 teaspoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons shredded parmesan cheese, fresh, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

Chop tough ends off asparagus. Boil asparagus just until tender, about 4 to 6 minutes (or microwave asparagus about 2 to 3 minutes.).

Plunge asparagus into a large bowl of ice water to stop them from cooking; drain and place on a serving platter. Sprinkle tomatoes over top.

In a small bowl, stir together vinegar, orange juice and garlic; season to taste. Spoon dressing over asparagus and tomatoes; sprinkle with cheese and serve.

Yields 1/4 of asparagus per serving.

Asparagus and Spinach Frittata

Martha Stewart's frittata includes asparagus and spinach and is topped with salty capers, fresh parsley and chopped scallions.

A frittata is an egg-based dish similar to a crustless quiche or omelet. The word, frittata, means "to fry" in Italian. Usually frittatas include meats, cheeses, vegetables, or pasta and often are flavored with herbs.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound asparagus, ends trimmed

1 3/4 teaspoons coarse salt, divided

juice of 1/2 lemon

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped (1 cup)

2 cloves garlic, minced

10 oz frozen spinach, thawed and drained

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

10 large eggs

1 1/2 cups milk

1 tablespoon salt-packed capers, rinsed and chopped

1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

2 scallions, finely chopped

1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees with rack in middle position. Heat a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil to skillet. When oil shimmers, add asparagus and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, tossing occasionally, until asparagus is crisp tender and brown in spots, 3-4 minutes. Squeeze lemon juice over asparagus and transfer to a plate to cool, reserving skillet.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in skillet over medium-high heat. When oil shimmers, add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, 3 minutes. Add garlic, spinach, pepper, and 1 teaspoon salt and cook 1 minute until spinach is warmed through.

Whisk eggs and milk in a medium bowl until thoroughly combined. Pour into skillet and cook, stirring constantly, just until eggs begin to scramble but are still very wet. Remove from heat. Distribute asparagus in a single layer over eggs, pressing them gently into eggs. Transfer to oven, and bake just until frittata is set, 18-20 minutes. Cool 5 minutes before slicing and serving.

Combine capers, parsley, scallions, remaining 1 tablespoon oil, vinegar, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl and serve with frittata.

Easy Asparagus Casserole

Here is a perfect springtime dish made up of eggs and asparagus. This casserole could be served as a side or main dish and is fancy enough to be served alongside Easter ham.

1-1/2 cups cut asparagus, cooked (should still be bright green, do not overcook)

4 hard cooked eggs, sliced

1 teaspoon salt

dash pepper

1 cup cracker crumbs

1 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese

1 cup cream of mushroom soup (could be replaced with any other cream-based soup or a medium white sauce)

Place layers of half of asparagus and sliced eggs in a 1-quart buttered casserole. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and top with half of the cracker crumbs. Cover with shredded cheese. Pour half of mushroom soup over this. Repeat layer; pour remainder of soup over contents of the dish. Bake for about 45 minutes to 1 hour at 325 degrees, or until hot and bubbly.

Asparagus Wrapped in Crisp Prosciutto

This appetizer is not only elegant, but beyond easy. Assemble ahead of time and bake when guests arrive.

1 tablespoon olive oil

16 spears fresh asparagus, trimmed

16 slices prosciutto (available at the deli counter)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, and coat with olive oil.

Wrap one slice of prosciutto around each asparagus spear, starting at the bottom, and spiraling up to the tip. Place the wrapped spears on the prepared baking sheet.

Bake for 5 minutes in the preheated oven. Remove, and shake the pan back and forth to roll the spears over. Return to the oven for another 5 minutes, or until asparagus is tender, and prosciutto is crisp. Serve immediately. If desired, grate fresh parmesan cheese over the top right before serving.

Asparagus and Ham Stuffed Potatoes

This twist on twice-baked potatoes comes from eatingwell.com. The potatoes can also be baked in the oven or wrapped in aluminum foil and placed on the grill until heated through.

4 medium russet potatoes (about 8 oz each)

1/2 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup diced ham

1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream

1 cup shredded Swiss cheese, divided

1/2 cup chopped fresh chives, divided

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white or black pepper

Pierce potatoes all over with a fork. Microwave on medium, turning once or twice, until soft, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring 2 inches of water to a boil in a large saucepan fitted with a steamer basket. Add asparagus, cover and steam until just tender, 2 to 3 minutes.

Combine the steamed asparagus with ham, sour cream, 1/2 cup Swiss cheese, 6 tablespoons chives, salt and pepper in a bowl. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut off the top third, then gently scoop out the flesh; add to the bowl with the ham mixture and gently mash together.

Place the potato shells in a microwave-safe dish and evenly divide the ham mixture among them. (They will be very well stuffed.) Top each stuffed potato with 2 tablespoons of the remaining cheese. Microwave on High until the filling is hot and the cheese is melted, 2 to 4 minutes. Garnish with the remaining chives.

Ham Asparagus Gratin

Campbell's Kitchen has a simple, yet satisfying way to make kids eat their vegetables. This hearty dinner is sure to be a crowd pleaser.

1 can (10 3/4 oz) Campbell's Condensed Cream of Asparagus Soup

1/2 cup milk

1/4 teaspoon onion powder

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups lightly cooked cut asparagus

1 1/2 cups cubed cooked ham

2 1/4 cups rotini pasta, cooked and drained (about 4 cups)

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese or Swiss cheese (about 4 oz)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Stir the soup, milk, onion powder, black pepper, asparagus, ham, pasta and 1/2 cup cheese in an 11 x 7 x 2-inch baking dish. Bake for 25 minutes or until the ham mixture is hot and bubbling. Stir the ham mixture. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake for 5 minutes or until the cheese is melted.