Welcome spring with asparagus

When you've tasted the first asparagus of the season, simply cooked, maybe spritzed with a bit of lemon and topped with a tad of butter, you've just tasted spring.

Although we can find good asparagus year-round, it is at its peak and its cheapest during the spring.

In California, the first crops are picked as early as February, depending on the weather. In the Midwest and east, the growing season can go into July, although April and May are generally when asparagus is at its prime.

When it comes to choosing asparagus, most people believe that thin asparagus will be tenderer, but it's not necessarily true.

Generally, thin asparagus needs less preparation and less cooking time.Thicker, more substantial stalks are meatier.

Thin asparagus that has been on the shelves a bit too long can be tough and flavorless, while fresh, fat spears can be very sweet and tender.

But whether thick or thin, choose asparagus that have smooth stems and tight tops. If there are wrinkles in the stalk or the tips are feathery, it's not very fresh.

All asparagus, thick or thin, needs to be trimmed. The woodier ends need to be cut about two inches from the end. I remember my mother teaching me to take a stalk and bend it slightly to the point where the stalk naturally breaks and discard the portion below.

My husband watched me once while I was trimming asparagus and he couldn't believe how much it seemed I was throwing away.

It does seem kind of wasteful, so if you can, save those cut ends and either add them to an asparagus soup, or, if you're real ambitious, make a vegetable stock.

The recipe I'm sharing today I've made many times.I love both asparagus and mushrooms and the marriage of the two in a creamy sauce is simply perfect.

I found this recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks, from the Three Rivers cookbook series. I have three of the books and they're all splattered and have many dog-eared pages and handwritten notes.

People don't share recipes in community fundraiser cookbooks like these unless they're proud of them, so you know they're tried and true. Just like this one.

I've made a couple adjustments over the years. I've substituted red pepper for the pimiento, which is just there to add a bit of color. And the original recipe called for frozen asparagus, but I much prefer fresh.

And I use a teaspoon of my favorite brand of chicken bouillon, Better than Broth, which seems richer than powder.

When I told my husband that I was making this casserole for Easter, he had to ask, "What are asparagus again? The green pencils?" Yes, dear, the green pencils.

Asparagus and mushroom casserole

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 pound fresh asparagus

4 cups fresh mushrooms, halved

1 small onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon chicken bouillon

teaspoon salt

teaspoons ground nutmeg

1 cup milk

cup chopped pimiento, drained

1 teaspoons lemon juice

cup soft breadcrumbs

1 tablespoon butter, melted

Clean the asparagus, trimming any tough ends. Cut into 1 to 2 inch pieces and steam just until tender. Melt the 4 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat.

Add the mushrooms and onion and cook until softened, not browned, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon and set aside, leaving the butter in the skillet.

Blend in the flour, chicken bouillon, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add milk. Cook and stir until bubbly. Reduce heat and return the cooked vegetables to the pan and combine with the asparagus, pimiento, and lemon juice.

Turn into a 3 quart casserole; combine crumbs and melted butter and sprinkle over top. Bake in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for 35 to 40 minutes.

(Wolbert is a former corporate communicator and English teacher, now indulging in her two loves, writing and cooking. She can be reached at rdwolbert@gmail.com or at her Sprigs of Rosemary Facebook page.)