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April 2, 2013

Asparagus and the grill, a match made for spring

WASHINGTON — 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?

For a long time, I simply chose whatever was at the store. Then I read that 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 have returned to my earlier, uninformed strategy: I 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 simultaneously 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.

Follow Shahin on Twitter: @jimshahin.

 

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