[caption id="attachment_193" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="The Thames Valley Melon Company brings wonderfully fresh asparagus to the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto."][/caption] When I was growing up in Stratford, Ont, a big vegetable garden with an asparagus bed occupied about a third of our back yard. We ate aspargus every spring, usually just boiled crisp tender in the tall top of my mother's double boiler and buttered. On the weekends, asparagus sometimes came on toast with a cheese sauce. To prep, we simply snapped off the butt. I spent a year in France after university where I met up with white asparagus. Thick as my thumb, milder than the green of Stratford days. As a newly wed, London England was my home, and that's where I learned to eat asparagus cold, with a vinaigrette, or warm, with my fingers. Holding the spear up high, and biting down the stalk till I reached the hard bit at the end, the butt. The asparagus was peeled, the butt trimmed but intact, all the better to hold the spear for nibbling. Comical to look at (if you were from the colonies, like me), but in the end, it made sense. Asparagus became a delicious ritual. When Marcella Hazan turned the North America's passion for French cooking on its ear with the publication of her first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book (Alfred A. Knopf), I took her advice and blanched my asparagus, grated some pamigiano reggiano (Parmesan cheese) over the top, drizzled on a little melted butter and roasted the spears in a hot oven until "a light, golden crust" formed. Beside the recipe on page 356 is noted, "Excellent, May 1978". Since then, spring brings a succession of asparagus - in soup, crepes, stratas, salads with citrus aioli, risotto, pasta, in pinwheel sandwiches, fried in egg and breadcrumbs, omelettes and frittatas, pizza, wrapped in prosciutto, roasted, grilled and dipped into runny eggs. And just plain with butter or olive oil and a squirt of lemon. No matter the colour, the temperature, fingers or knife and fork, sauced or plain, crusty or not, star of the dish, steamed or grilled, asparagus has more room in my heart than any other vegetable. Crucial to asparagus is its freshness. And while going out the back door with a paring knife and coming in with a "feed" of asparagus cupped in my apron is no longer a reality, the best we all can do is support our locally grown asparagus. If asparaus grows nearby, the hope is it's pushing its way through the earth one day, and in the store or farmers' market and your pot the next. If you live near an asparagus farm, like the ones I'm familiar with in Southwestern Ontario, pick your own or purchase just-picked and count yourselves lucky. [caption id="attachment_194" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="Almost as good as growing or picking your own"][/caption] Mastering Asparagus . Choose thick straight stalks with tight tips. Note "thick". Leave those spindly taste-free specimens for out-of-season imports. . To store, get rid of the ubiquitous elastic holding the bundle, wrap the spears in a clean dry towel, enclose in a plastic bag. Store in the refrigerator. Sitting the asparagus butts in water is often recommended, however, the moisture encourages the asparagus to keep growing and the tips to loosen. In any case, if you love asparagus, long storage is out of the question. Why buy asparagus if you don't intend to relish it fresh? . The method that provides tender asparagus from bottom to tip is to hold the asparagus by its butt and about a third of the way up the stalk. Bend the stalk until it snaps- at the point where the fibrous butt turns into tender stalk. If you peel the stalks with a vegetable peeler, or an asparagus peeler (and such a utensil does exist) just trim the butt end. Peeled asparagus cooks quite rapidly and has a polished appearance. I have seen the bottoms trimmed to form a point. . Asparagus often grows in sandy soil. That means rinsing the asparagus thoroughly. There's a saying in professional cooking circles that a restaurant is only as good as the apprentice who washes the asparagus. Grit - be gone! . Roasted or grilled asparagus is a wonderful way to prepare asparagus for a crowd. Try the grill method this spring when having a barbecue. Simply roll the prepped asparagus in oil, and either roast on a rimmed baking sheet at 400°F (200°C) until crisp tender, about 8 minutes. Or grill, turning to cook through, about the same amount of time. . To steam asparagus, there is such a thing as an asparagus pot, a tall, slim pot with lid and a perferated insert to load up with the asparagus, lower into the boiling water and remove very efficiently when the spears are tender crisp. The top of a tall double boiler works well too. Bring to boil about 2 inches (5 cm) water in the bottom. For the double boiler, you can bundle the spears together with cotton string. [caption id="attachment_195" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="Looks strange...but it works!"][/caption] Add the asparagus, tips up, to the water. In both the asparagus pot and the double boiler, the thicker tougher lower part of the stalks boil while the tender tips steam. If blanching asparagus for another dish, e.g. baked with Parmesan, 1 to 2 minutes is plenty, to serve in a salad, about 3, to go straight to the table, start checking at 4 minutes. [caption id="attachment_196" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="The spears are still firm, but tender- ready to drain and enjoy"][/caption] . To serve hot, untie if necessary, drain, drizzle with melted butter or olive oil and express to the table. To serve cold, plunge the spears into ice water and let them chill just until they're cold. Don't leave them in the cold water, letting their flavour leach away. Drain and pat dry. . In a pinch, you can also cook the asparagus lying horizontal in boiling water in a large skillet. Bundling is optional, but makes removing the spears from the water easier. . Bottom line: If you haven't tried roasted asparagus, make the spring of 09 the season when you were converted to this simple technique! When a person tires of asparagus pure and simple, there are ways to revive you interest. Take the Asparagus Gruyere Tart, for example, that's an excellent vegetarian brunch/brunch or supper dish, or a sit-down appetizer. Asparagus Gruyere Tart 2 lb (1 kg) asparagus, usually 2 bunches, butts snapped off 1 pkg (450 g) butter puff pastry, thawed but still cold 2 tbsp (30 mL) Dijon mustard 1-1/2 cups (375 mL) shredded Gruyere cheese 1/2 tsp (2 mL) coarsely ground pepper 1 egg 1 tbsp (15 mL) milk . Line 2 rimless baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats, or grease lightly. Set aside. . In asparagus pot, double boiler or wide saucepan of boiling water, cook asparagus until tender-crisp, about 3 minutes. Immediately chill in cold water to stop cooking and keep the texture; pat dry. . Unroll each pastry sheet onto prepared pan. Spread evenly with mustard, leaving 1-inch (2.5 cm) border. Arrange asparagus side by side and alternating ends, on mustard. Sprinkle with cheese and pepper. . In small bowl, beat egg with milk. Lightly brush over pastry border. Bake in top and bottom thirds of 450°F (230°C) oven, rotating and switching pans halfway through, until pastry is puffed and golden, and cheese is bubbly, about 18 minutes. Serve hot or still warm. Served cold, the Tart looses its charm. . Makes 12 appetizer servings. Substitutions: You can replace the Gruyere cheese with a firm grating cheese such as old Gouda or Cheddar. For the puff pastry, if you make your own or purchase from a bakery, the piece of rolled out pastry need to be 10-inches (25 cm) square. * Sparrow Grass - when a new unfamiliar word is introduced into a language, it sometimes sounds like another word speakers know well. It's not hard to see how asparagus acquired this charming name in 18th century England when asparagus was still somewhat of a garden novelty.