Thursday, April 30, 2009

Veggie Might: Steamed Asparagus (Don’t Gild the Lily Shoots)

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

Sometimes vegetables should just be left alone.

This past weekend, I spent three glorious days in the North Carolina sunshine with my best friend, A., and her husband and two-year-old. It was little C’s birthday, and I just couldn’t resist a circus-themed party.

Friday night before the big event, A. and I were fixing dinner: something light and fast before the hotdogs, cupcakes, and apple juice to come. A is the manager of the local farmer’s market in her area. One of the perks is first dibs on fresh produce while the farmers set up their stalls.

From her fridge, she pulled out a bundle of perfect, young asparagus stalks: the first of the season and the sweetest I’d ever tasted. We ate the thinnest stalks raw as we washed and snapped off the ends of the rest.

C toddled up and A. gave him a stalk. He took the asparagus and munched gleefully. I’ve never seen a kid eat vegetables like that. (I’ve also never typed the word “gleefully” before, but hey.)

“Sautee or steam?” A. asked.

“Steam,” I replied. It seemed like gilding the lily to put those perfect stems of green spring goodness in oil or butter. Turns out asparagus is a member of the lily family. Who knew? (Well, the people at that link and Mark Bittman.)

As you know, I’m a big fan of sautéing vegetables in garlic. How many recipes have I shared with that step? But even I know when to leave well enough alone.

A. seemed to know just how long to cook the asparagus, but I would have had to get help. I don’t trust myself for two reasons; I get impatient, and I get distracted.

I have no patience for standing over a pot of boiling water, even for a few minutes. After a minute has past, you can guarantee I will have wondered off like a two-year-old to see what else is going on, and then the veggies will have overcooked.

According to Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, asparagus should be boiled in a skillet or steamed in a pan with just a bit of water at the bottom “just until the thick part of the stalk can be pierced with a knife.” Well, just how long is that? It depends on how much you’re cooking, of course. In our case, a bunch of about 20 stalks took 3 minutes to steam. A set a timer which let us wander guilt-free.

They were perfect: tender, slightly crunchy, vibrantly green. I know that, classically, asparagus is served with hollandaise or mayonnaise, but I’ve never understood why. Who thought to drench something so light and delicious with such heavy sauces?

We didn’t even think to salt our Carolina-grown spring bounty. If A. salted the water, I didn’t notice.

Our supper of fresh-from-the-farm veggies was one of the easiest and best meals I’ve eaten in a while. It reminded me that, sometimes, it’s best to let food be itself.

Steamed Asparagus
Serves 3 – 4

20 asparagus stalks
1/2 cup of water

1) Wash asparagus and break off woody ends.

2) Put water in sauce pan. Put asparagus in steamer basket or bamboo steamer and place over sauce pan. (You can also use the Mark Bittman methods above.)

3) Bring water to boil.

4) Steam for approximately 3 minutes or until thick ends of stalks are tender.

5) Dress as desired or eat plain. Plain is good. Really good.

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price* per Serving
Four servings: 15 calories, .1g fat, $.37
Three servings: 20 calories, .13g fat, $.50

Asparagus: 60 calories, .4g fat, $1.50
TOTAL: 60 calories, .4g fat, $1.50
PER SERVING (TOTAL/4): 15 calories, .1g fat, $.37
PER SERVING (TOTAL/3): 20 calories, .13g fat, $.50

*Price is from my local market.


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