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Asparagus with Creamy Chive Drizzle celebrates early spring

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When the guy at the checkout asked me if asparagus could hold up to freezing temperatures, I thought he was referring to a malfunctioning refrigerator. Then, he put his hands in the air, layering them 4 or 5 inches apart. "My asparagus is about this big already," he said. "It's supposed to get down into the 20s tonight. I'm worried about the asparagus."

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I couldn't give him an answer about how overnight freezing temperatures would affect young asparagus shoots. I can cook, but I'm not much of a gardener.

As soon as I returned home, I went out to the dirt patch that used to be a garden in my yard. Each spring, I harvest a few asparagus spears, thanks to the initial planting of the previous owners of our house.

I crawled on the ground, moving away leaves and pine needles as I searched for signs of asparagus. Sure enough, there was one purple tip looking like a little nose poking out of the soil - a definite sign of early spring.

Although it may be a while before my asparagus is ready to harvest, this vegetable that is related to onions, garlic and other members of the lily family is in grocery stores right now.

When buying asparagus, choose firm, bright green stalks that are relatively equal in thickness for even cooking. The tips should be tightly furled.

As is true with many vegetables, the fresher it is, the better the flavor will be. To store asparagus, wrap the bottom of the stalks in a damp cloth and slide into a plastic bag before putting it in the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator. Or bundle the spears with a rubber band and place them upright in a container with an inch of water. Use the asparagus as soon as possible.

Prepare fresh asparagus by first breaking off the tough, lower end of each spear where it snaps easily. Save the woody bases for soup stock if desired. Next, wash the stalks thoroughly and carefully to remove any sand from under the scales.

Tender asparagus spears are a culinary treat eaten raw. Enjoy the crunchy vegetable with dip or chop and toss into salads. When you eat asparagus raw, you will get the highest dose of vitamins A, C and K that it has to offer.

There are so many ways to prepare asparagus. I prefer to keep it simple, allowing the full flavor to come through without being overwhelmed by other ingredients.

Cooking the spears in boiling water for just a few minutes preserves crunchy texture. A little too long in simmering water will result in mushy spears, so don't move too far away from the stove.

Asparagus and chives are the first joyful signs of spring in the garden. No wonder they taste so good together. Asparagus with Creamy Chive Drizzle is a harmonious blend of chopped chives, garlic and shallots. Dijon mustard adds a tart surprise, and honey contributes just the right amount of sweetness. Tarragon adds alluring flavor. It's a dish that rings in the new season of spring.

On my next trip to the grocery store, I asked the asparagus guy why the crowns in my garden were producing stalks just a couple of inches tall while his were almost half a foot tall. "Compost. Give them lots of organic compost," he said.

Hmmmm. Maybe I'll give gardening another try.

Asparagus with Creamy Chive Drizzle

1/2 cup vegetable or grapeseed oil

1/4 cup chopped shallots

1 clove garlic, chopped

1/2 cup chopped chives

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon dried tarragon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 pound fresh asparagus spears

Grated lemon zest, for garnish

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and add garlic. Stir as it cooks off the heat for a minute. Transfer to a blender. Add chives, vinegar, mustard, honey, tarragon and salt and pepper. Process until smooth. With blender running, add remaining oil in a steady stream until mixture is creamy. Set aside at room temperature, covered, for up to 4 hours or refrigerate up to 3 days.

Snap tough ends from asparagus and discard. Arrange spears loosely in a skillet with an inch of boiling water. Simmer, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until tender-crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain well. Arrange on plates. Stir chive mixture and drizzle over asparagus. Sprinkle with grated lemon zest. Makes 4 servings.

Tips from the cook

--Use extra Creamy Chive mixture as a dressing for tossed salads or as a spread in your favorite wrap.

--Grapeseed oil is a nice choice for the Creamy Chive Drizzle because it emulsifies well, creating a dressing or drizzle that will not separate.

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