- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Just as the spring flowers reappear in our garden, so does fresh asparagus appear once again in the market. Imported asparagus might have been available during the winter, but U.S.-grown is fresher and more attractively priced now. So savor it.

It’s literally a snap to enjoy asparagus. Place it in your hands and snap off the tough stem ends where the spears naturally break, their most vulnerable spot, and discard the ends unless you are saving them to boil and puree into soup.

Fresh asparagus has an exceptional flavor when poached, grilled or roasted, and especially in this dinnertime salad.

Be forewarned that the thinner the asparagus, the faster it cooks.

Round out this meal with a roasted chicken you tote home from the supermarket; some crusty bread; and a platter of store-bought hummus, feta cheese cubes and grape tomatoes. Celebrate spring with an old-fashioned pineapple upside-down cake that bakes until bubbly as you feast on asparagus.

Five time-shaving ways to cook fresh asparagus

• Fill a large skillet with half an inch of water. Bring water to a simmer, then add the asparagus spears in one layer and poach until they are bright green and tender, 5 to 6 minutes. Drain and season with soy sauce.

• To cook asparagus ahead for another meal, such as a casserole, follow the above method, reducing the cooking time to 3 to 4 minutes.

• Brush thick spears with olive oil; season with salt; and grill them until tender over a low fire, turning frequently.

• When roasting a chicken or a piece of fish, brush asparagus with melted butter or olive oil, season with salt, and roast alongside the chicken or fish until tender.

m When cooking your favorite pasta, add asparagus spears to the boiling water for the last 2 minutes. Boil until bright green and tender, drain along with the pasta, add sauce to your liking and serve.

Warm arugula salad with roasted asparagus and balsamic vinaigrette

1 bunch of thin asparagus (about 30 stalks)

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt

1/3 cup bottled balsamic vinaigrette

½ cup store-bought roasted red pepper strips

1/4 cup halved pitted Kalamata olives

4 cups pre-washed baby arugula, trimmed and leaves torn into pieces

Rinse asparagus spears, pat dry, and snap off and discard the tough ends. Place asparagus in a shallow baking pan, drizzle with the olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Bake asparagus in preheated 400-degree oven until it just begins to take on a roasted appearance, 5 to 6 minutes.

Meanwhile, warm balsamic vinaigrette in a small saucepan over low heat. Do not let it come to a boil.

Remove baking pan from oven and toss red pepper strips and olives with hot asparagus. Either divide arugula among 4 salad plates or place arugula in a medium-size salad bowl. Top it with asparagus mixture. Spoon warmed dressing over salad and serve at once. Makes 4 servings.

Anne Byrn is the author of the popular Doctor series cookbooks, including “The Cake Mix Doctor” and “The Dinner Doctor” (Workman Publishing).

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