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Slender spears of delicious elegance

If there's anything that says ``spring'' more than the first daffodil, it's got to be the first asparagus. Even if asparagus were not so delicious, a few bright green, slender spears would still add grace and elegance to any plate.

Even the rather high price of the first California crop doesn't seem to deter consumers who eagerly stalk the domesticated asparagus in their local markets.

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White asparagus, favored by Europeans, is appearing more frequently in the United States, but it is more expensive than the green because of labor and import costs. Most people find the white to be milder and more delicate in flavor. Everyone seems to agree that freshness should take precedence over color, and certainly over any soggy canned variety.

Look for spears that are uniform, in whatever size you prefer. Make sure they are crisp and dark (if green) in color, and have tightly curled tips. Avoid limp, shriveled, or woody ones.

For maximum thrift, peel the bottom of the stalks rather than snapping off the ends. Remember, too, to save the water from any cooked asparagus and add it to your favorite vegetable soup.

Asparagus is especially good served raw with a vegetable dip. If you plan to serve it cooked and cooled with a vinaigrette, prepare it just before serving. The acid in vinegar tends to turn asparagus an unappetizing color if dressing is left on too long.

Plan on half a pound of untrimmed asparagus per person.

But is asparagus finger food? Miss Manners puts the question to rest in her ``Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior'' (Atheneum, 1982).

``Asparagus is, indeed, correctly eaten with the fingers, in a very old tradition of which few modern people seem to be aware. Those who do know can therefore have a marvelous time doing this in company or in restaurants and being reprimanded or at least stared at, only to have the disapproving people find out later that they were in the wrong.''

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So there you are.

The following simple recipe is one I enjoyed several times in northern Italy. Asparagus With Parmesan Cheese 2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and peeled 4 to 6 tablespoons butter Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste Parmesan cheese (preferably Parmigiano Reggiano), freshly grated

Blanch asparagus in boiling water 2 minutes. Drain thoroughly and arrange in shallow, ovenproof serving dish.

Melt butter and pour over asparagus. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Bake in preheated 375-degree F. oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Asparagus Soup 2 pounds fresh asparagus, trimmed of tough ends 4 tablespoons butter 2 large onions, chopped 3 tablespoons flour 6 cups chicken broth 1/2 cup heavy cream

Cut off top 3 inches of asparagus and blanch 5 minutes in boiling water. Chop and set aside to cool. Chop remaining trimmed asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces.

In a large saucepan, melt butter and saut'e onions until limp. Stir in raw asparagus, cover pan, and cook about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Whisk in flour and cook uncovered for about 3 minutes. Add chicken broth, bring to boil, then simmer covered 30 minutes.

Cool soup slightly, then pur'ee in blender or food processor. Sieve mixture to remove tough fibers. Return soup to saucepan, whisk in heavy cream, and heat. Chop blanched asparagus tips and add to heated soup. Serves 4.

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