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From Side Dish to Star Attraction
by Russ Parsons

Sugar snap peas have always frustrated me -- not because they don't taste good, but because there never seemed to be anything I could do to make them taste better.

Eaten straight out of hand, they're like some miracle vegetable: crisp as romaine, sweet as fruit and explosively green in flavor. But whenever I cooked them I always seemed to wind up with something less, not more.

In that way, they're representative of the entire spring vegetable crop: The best cook is the one who chooses ingredients carefully and then treats them simply. Need specifics? Let's look at three of the most popular spring vegetables, starting with those vexing peas.

The most important lesson in cooking sugar snaps is not to overdo it. A brief blanching in boiling water -- only a minute or two at the most -- will improve the color and deepen the flavor slightly. Any more than that, though, and you'll lose the crispness and the sweetness.

The best thing I've found to do with sugar snaps is folding them into a rice salad, where the soft texture and subtle flavor and color highlight all of the pea's best qualities.

Though there are things to look for when buying sugar snaps, the simplest way to pick out the best is a quick (if surreptitious) munch. If they taste good, what more do you really need to know?

Beyond that, you want pods that are firm and well filled out with peas. The skin should be taut with no nicks or dents. You'll frequently see a sugar snap with some white streaking; that's fine -- the bright green color will even out during a brief blanching.

The biggest variable with sugar snaps is stringiness. There are several varieties that are grown now and some of them need de-stringing more than others.

This is another case in which snacking pays off. If you try one and you're left with a mouth full of fiber, you'd better plan on spending a few minutes stringing the rest.

That's easy enough to do. Grab the stem and snap it back toward the flower end. The stem will break off, staying attached only by the string. Unzip the string along the seam and you're done.

Worth the hassle

Artichokes are at the opposite end of the cook-ability spectrum. In fact, it is rare that you'll find them served raw at all -- the currently trendy shaved artichoke heart carpaccio being the man-bites-dog exception.

Even the simplest of artichoke dishes takes a lot of preparation, the exact nature of which depends on how you're going to use them.

Normally, I'm a firm believer in leaving the stems intact -- they've got just as much flavor as the hearts. But sometimes you need a flat base, as in these stuffed artichokes, and so the stems have to go.

An old nonna technique is to stick the trimmed stems between the stuffed artichokes, both to help prop the artichokes upright and so they will be cooked and not wasted.

There are two schools of stuffing artichokes. Which you choose will depend in large part on the kind of artichoke you buy.

In the first, which works best with the really big artichokes that are usually used for steaming and dipping, the leaves are spread and little dabs of stuffing are sandwiched in between them. After cooking, you eat these as you would steamed 'chokes: Pull off a leaf (hopefully, with some stuffing) and scrape it between your teeth to remove the soft edible part.

I like the knife-and-fork approach to stuffed artichokes, the kind you find in spring antipasto platters in central Italy. Prepared this way, the artichoke is really more of an edible cup holding a light, savory filling.

Medium artichokes work best for these and cleaning them requires a certain ruthlessness. It's hard to throw away that much vegetable. The only way to look at it is that every tough scrap of peel you don't remove, one of your guests will have to. And a plate that looks like it's been through the mulcher is so unattractive.

The cleaning technique I prefer for these is the one recommended by Marcella Hazan. I can offer no better instruction than to quote her:

"Begin bending back and snapping off the outer green part of the leaves, letting only the whitish, tender bottom of each leaf remain -- the edible portion. Use a lemon half to squeeze juice over the cut portions so they won't discolor.

"As you get deeper into the artichoke, the leaves will snap off farther from the base. Keep snapping off leaves until you expose a central cone of leaves that are green only at the tips. Slice about an inch off the top of the central cone, enough to eliminate all of the green part.

"In the center of the artichoke you will see at the bottom some very small, pale leaves with purple, prickly tips curving inward.... Cut all of these little leaves and scrape away the fuzzy 'choke beneath them.

"Pare away the green outer parts of the leaves at the base of the artichoke, leaving the white and continuing to rub the cut portions with the lemon half."

When shopping for artichokes, don't pay too much attention to looks -- artichokes almost inevitably get a bit beaten up and you're going to throw away most of the visible surface anyway. Instead, focus on weight (artichokes should be heavy for their size) and sound (fresh artichokes will be firm enough to squeak when their leaves are rubbed together).

Choosing asparagus, on the other hand, is all about looks. Asparagus is as fragile as a hothouse flower and betrays bad handling almost instantly. Choose asparagus spears with tightly furled tops, smooth, unwrinkled middles and moist cut-ends. The best shippers these days are packaging their asparagus upright in cases, with wet pads underneath. Good groceries will display them the same way.

A standout spear

It's hard to imagine something as simple and good as asparagus causing controversy, yet there is a never-ending argument among those who love the vegetable best. Thick or thin? Like most never-ending arguments, this one is almost entirely a matter of aesthetics. Thin asparagus doesn't have to be peeled and tends to seem a little crisper. And there is certainly something beautiful about the way the grass-like spears bend and flow on the platter.

On the other hand, big fat spears have a juicy, almost mousse-like voluptuousness that is hard to beat. Pretty as thin spears may be, there is little that gets me salivating in the way a mound of fat spears can, simply cooked through and perfumed with the best olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.

And while asparagus served by itself is best left whole, when you're mixing it into a dish, chop it into short sections and its flavor will spread better. That's especially true for pastas, risottos and egg dishes, such as this frittata.

Just remember, this is spring. The less you do to it, the better.

Recipe: Rice Salad with Ham, Sugar Snap Peas and Provolone
Recipe: Artichokes Stuffed with Ham and Pine Nuts
Recipe: Asparagus and Ham Frittata

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