• STIR IT UP: Luscious, lovely asparagus
     | March 29,2013
    Squire Fox Photo

    Skillet Asparagus With Grapefruit bridges the seasons. The photo and recipe are from “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen” by Matt Lee and Ted Lee.

    Asparagus might be the vegetable with the most celebrity endorsements, if you count ancient celebs. Julius Caesar was a fan, as was the unknown author of the oldest surviving cookbook, Apicius, which dates to the fourth or fifth century A.D.

    Emperor Augustus coined the phrase “quicker than cooking asparagus” to indicate great speed, and he kept an “asparagus fleet” with which to procure the vegetable. Louis XIV of France was so gaga for asparagus that he had special greenhouses built in which to grow it. The infamous Madame de Pompadour loved a white variety with purple tips, reportedly the same shade of purple as her underwear. Or so says Rebecca Rupp, author of “How Carrots Won the Trojan War” (Storey Publishing, 2011), a delightful book subtitled “Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables.”

    According to Rupp, asparagus was historically considered “pure sex food,” an aphrodisiac that was fed to bridegrooms before their wedding nights and was banned in girls schools for fear of inflaming the libido. It also was a supposed cure for kidney disease, toothache, bee sting, elephantiasis, chest pain, poor eyesight, jaundice, intestinal disease and more. Medically, Rupp concludes, asparagus truthfully “isn’t good for anything much.” We eat it because we like it, because it is simple to prepare and because it gives any meal a touch of elegance.

    Matt and Ted Lee, aka the Lee Bros. of Charleston, S.C., authors of three books on Southern cooking, offer an asparagus recipe in their latest book, “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen” (Clarkson Potter, 2013). This recipe, they say, “romances March in Charleston” with its combination of late winter produce (grapefruit) and early spring harvest (asparagus).

    March is a “stellar month” in Charleston, the Lees tell us, with azaleas, dogwoods and lilies in bloom, garden tours in full swing and locally grown asparagus on the plate.

    For those of us in the far Northeast, March is not so stellar. Asparagus, which we get from warmer parts of the country or from South America, gives us hope that spring will come to us, too.

    Skillet Asparagus With Grapefruit

    Yield: 4 servings

    1 grapefruit, preferably a ruby variety

    ¾ teaspoon kosher salt

    2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

    1 tablespoon water

    1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

    2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

    1 teaspoon canola, vegetable or grapeseed oil, plus more if necessary

    1 pound medium asparagus, trimmed of any woody ends

    Freshly ground black pepper

    With a zester or Microplane grater, scrape some zest from the skin of the grapefruit for garnish and reserve.

    Cut off the bottom and top of the grapefruit with a knife so that it won’t roll while you peel it. Peel the fruit by placing the tip of a sharp knife just inside where the pith meets the pulp and slicing down with firm, clean strokes, following the curve of the fruit. Repeat until the entire fruit has been peeled. Working over a bowl to catch the juice, gently cut the segments of pulp with a sharp knife by slicing toward the core as closely as possible to the membranes that separate the segments. Once you’ve extracted all the citrus segments, squeeze the membranes to release any remaining juice into the bowl; discard the membranes. Gently strain the segments, reserving segments and juice in separate bowls.

    To the juice, add ¼ teaspoon salt, vinegar, water and mustard. Whisk to combine. Pour in olive oil, whisking to emulsify. Set aside.

    Heat canola oil in a large skillet over high. When it smokes, add half the asparagus and ¼ teaspoon salt; cover. Cook, partly covered, until the asparagus is blackened on one side, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the asparagus in the pan, cover and cook until thoroughly blackened, 3 minutes more; transfer to a serving platter. Repeat with the remaining asparagus, adding another teaspoon of oil to the pan (if it’s become too dry) and seasoning with the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt.

    When all the asparagus is on the platter, scatter the grapefruit segments over the stalks. If the dressing has broken, whisk to re-emulsify, pour dressing over the asparagus and grind black pepper over the top. Garnish platter with the reserved zest; serve.

    Recipe from “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen” by Matt Lee and Ted Lee (Clarkson Potter, 2013)

    Marialisa Calta is a syndicated food writer who lives in Calais.

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