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NOTHING BEATS THE TASTE OF FRESH ASPARAGUS

Of course, you've had fresh asparagus. But fresh out of the garden?

Yes? Then you know that once your teeth sink into the homegrown kind, you're never happy until you can start growing some or move within an hour's reach of someone who does.Whether or not you ever see asparagus actually growing, it sure does. One day, an asparagus bed will look as bare as the floor model in a mattress department. The next morning, lilac-tinged green stalks will be poking through the brown earth. And that will go on, at a slowly diminishing pace, for as long as four weeks, usually from around the second week of May into June.

It's understood that fresh asparagus is best cooked quickly and served with a bit of butter and freshly ground salt and pepper, if not a drizzle of excellent olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or a dusting of freshly grated or curled Parmesan cheese, the real Italian Parmegiano Reggiano, please.

Less conventional tastes may prefer blueberry-infused or plain red wine vinegar and a touch of freshly grated orange rind instead of lemon juice. Balsamic vinegar is another favorite. And hollandaise sauce is remembered as being divine.

Loyalty to a certain size runs deep. But whether the best asparagus is fat or skinny or someplace in between, the answer is always yes. Buy the brightest green asparagus you can find. Look for tight heads and hardly any woody stem. If you must store them for a day or two in the refrigerator, take a thin slice off the bottom of the stalks, stand them in an inch of water in a tall container like a glass, with a plastic bag held on with a rubber band.

As to cooking method, I like Elaine Light's skillet better than the special asparagus cooker with a wire basket or the extra coffee pot or any other contraption.

She writes in "The New Gourmets & Groundhogs": "The best method of cooking asparagus I credit to famed French chef Paul Bocuse . . . lay the stalks in a single layer in a skillet. Cover with cold water. Add salt as desired. Lay a folded microwavable white paper towel or white cloth napkin on top of the asparagus. It will get wet. Bring to a boil and cook over high heat until asparagus reaches desired degree of doneness. Peek under the towel and test with the point of a knife. It will take no more than a few minutes and the asparagus retains its beautiful green color. Drain well and serve."

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RECIPES

ASPARAGUS LEMON PASTA

1 1/2 pounds asparagus, snapped and cut on bias 1/2 inch wide

1 pound bowtie pasta

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons knob onion or scallions, minced

1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons (about 3 lemons) freshly grated lemon zest

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

In a steamer set over boiling water, steam asparagus, covered, until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Rinse under cold water and drain well.

Start cooking pasta until al dente, in 5 quarts salted water in a big kettle.

In a deep 12-inch skillet, heat butter and cream over medium-low heat until butter melts. Add onion, zest, juice, salt. Remove skillet from heat, add asparagus and cover to keep warm.

When pasta is done, dip out 1/4 cup cooking water and add to sauce. Drain pasta, add to sauce, cook and toss for 1 minute over medium heat. Add parsley. Serve with cheese.

Makes 4 servings.

ASPARAGUS AND PROSCIUTTO SANDWICHES

12 tender asparagus spears

16 paper-thin slices prosciutto

8 to 12 large basil leaves

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 baguette, cut in quarters and sliced open

Steam asparagus about 2 minutes, until a knife just pierces the thickest part. Run under cold water, then drain on paper towels.

Mince basil and mix with mayonnaise.

Wrap 3 asparagus spears with 4 prosciutto slices. Repeat.

Spread bread with mayonnaise, then fill with asparagus bundles. Leave whole or slice in fourths.

Makes lunch for 2 or, sliced down, provides appetizers for 4.

- Source: "The New American Vegetable Cookbook" by Georgeanne Brennan, Isaac Cronin, Charlotte Glenn