Fresh asparagus means it's springtime

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Even the queen eats asparagus with her fingers, according to English schoolgirls who are experts in these things. Well, perhaps Queen Elizabeth doesn't, but the common thinking at one time was that you could pick up an asparagus spear with your hand and pop it into your mouth bud first because that's what was done in the royal household.

In that sense, asparagus are perfect for the American table, where informality reigns, and diners are already eating all kinds of food with their fingers.

The asparagus rule was different, somehow. First of all, in the era when it was invented, you had to ask the hostess's permission to pick something up in the hand. The asparagus came to the table on a silver platter lined with a starched white cotton napkin. Accompanying them was a little boat of thick, lemony Hollandaise, often poured in a band over the bud end of the stalks. It was left to the diner to pick up the spear and savor the goodness or rather imagine a combination more pleasing than this earthiness swirling around with butter and lemon.

When asparagus first appear in abundance, the signal is powerful. Even though the first asparagus in the market are from California, the appearance means crocuses are not far behind. The New England crop comes about a month later, and it's hard to wait.

Even the ancient Greeks, who cultivated asparagus the name, given by the Greeks, means "sprouts'' or "shoots'' adored these edible little stalks. The popularity of asparagus in French kitchens probably accounts for the special asparagus steamers available, in which the spears are stacked vertically so the tender buds don't overcook.

Save your money. A deep skillet works just as well. Gently bend the end of the stalk and let it snap where it wants to. This rids the spear of its stringy part. The spear can be peeled, but who has time? Drop the spears into rapidly bubbling water. Use tongs to move the spears from the bottom of the skillet to the top so they cook evenly.

When they look done, they are done. Fat spears take 2 minutes and thin spears are done when the water returns to a boil.

Transfer the spears to a plate lined with paper towels to catch the excess moisture. Leave them for half a minute, pull out the towel, and drizzle the spears lightly with a little olive oil, some lemon juice, kosher salt, and a few grinds of black pepper.

As soon as the platter hits the table, many hands will dig in. You can be sure no one will ask permission.

Thin Spaghetti

with Asparagus

Serves 2

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/2 pound asparagus, ends snapped and spears cut into 1-inch diagonal pieces

1/2 cup white wine

1/2 pound thin spaghetti (vermicelli or spaghettini)

1 cup pasta cooking liquid

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil.

Meanwhile, in a skillet, heat the oil and cook the garlic for 1 minute. Add the asparagus, salt, and pepper. Cook, tossing constantly, for 3 minutes, or until they are bright green.

Add the wine and let it bubble up for 2 minutes. Remove the asparagus from the pan and set them aside. Let the wine cook for 2 minutes more or until the raw edge has boiled off.

Drop the spaghetti into the pan of water and cook them, stirring occasionally, for 6 minutes or until they are tender but still have some bite. Dip a 1-cup glass measure into the pot of pasta and remove 1 cup of the cooking liquid.

Drain the spaghetti and transfer it to a warm bowl. Cover and set aside.

Pour the cooking water into the asparagus and let it bubble up. Return the asparagus to the pan. Pour the mixture over the spaghetti, add the Parmesan cheese, more pepper, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve at once.

Roasted Asparagus

with Roquefort

Serves 4

Butter (for the dish)

1 1/2 pounds thick asparagus, ends snapped off

Olive oil (for drizzling)

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 cup crumbled Roquefort

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Set the oven at 425 degrees. Butter a 12-inch baking dish.

Place the asparagus in the dish, drizzle it with oil, salt, and pepper. Roast the asparagus for 15 minutes.

In a saucepan combine the Roquefort, cream, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, and lower the heat until the cheese melts.

Spoon the Roquefort over the asparagus, sprinkle with Parmesan, and continue roasting for 10 minutes or until the asparagus are tender. Serve at once.

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