Mercedes Benz or Rolls-Royce exemplify luxury in the automotive field. Top-of-the-line fashion pertains to Oscar de la Renta or Ungaro. And for a night on the town, reservations at the Ritz in Paris or the Waldorf Astoria in New York command a hefty commitment to an American Express card or bundles of cold, hard cash.

But luxury in the vegetable line?The upper-crust, elegant label belongs to asparagus, the perennial that makes a fleeting spring appearance. This brief annual appearance elevates asparagus to limited-edition status, thus increasing its value.

While that limited edition is available, make the most of it.

Select stalks with evidence of freshness; bright green color indicates a flavorful bite, while duller, khaki green betrays the stalk's old age.

Author Alice B. Toklas said "asparagus should be picked when it is no thicker than a darning needle."

Thicker stalks take on a woody texture, while thin stalks with tight, firm heads offer more flavor.

Store your valuable purchase for only a day or two. Wrap asparagus, without cleaning, in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator crisper. The vegetable can also be stored upright, standing in an inch of water and covered with plastic wrap.

As a first course or side dish, plan a half pound per serving. A pound contains 15-20 medium-size stalks, or about three cups cut in 1- to 2-inch lengths.

Cook asparagus to a crisp-tender stage, retaining the bright green color. To steam, tie stalks together and place upright in a double boiler, adding enough water to cover the lower half of the spears.

Asparagus cooks efficiently in a microwave or, for variety, stir-fried in hot oil or butter.

Hollandaise, cheese or lemon sauces complement the vegetable or season with a choice of herbs like chives, parsley, sage, savory, tarragon or thyme. Poppy seeds, sesame seeds or Parmesan cheese add zest to an asparagus side dish.

Whether accompanied or alone, asparagus claims a prestigious place on any vegetable list.

Indulge in aristocracy, hobknob with the high-powered and steam a bundle of asparagus - immediately.



Herbed Asparagus with Parmesan Cheese

2 pounds trimmed asparagus

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, fresh

1 tablespoon chives, fresh

1 tablespoon dill, fresh

1 tablespoon rosemary, fresh

1 teaspoon black pepper, coarsely ground

4 ounces Parmesan cheese

Simmer asparagus in boiling water until just tender, 11/2-2 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Combine butter, chopped herbs and pepper in a small bowl, blend thoroughly. Just before serving, melt herb butter over medium heat; add asparagus and gently heat through. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 6.

- From The New Basics Cookbook

Asparagus Soup

2 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus or 2 packages (10 oz.) frozen

1 small onion, chopped

1/4 cup minced parsley

1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon flour

3 cups chicken broth

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Salt and white pepper

Cook asparagus until tender. Rinse in cold water and drain. Cut 1-inch tips from stalks and reserve. Cut the stalks into 1-inch pieces. In a large saucepan, saute onion, parsley and coriander in butter until vegetables are softened. Sprinkle in flour and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring with a whisk. Remove from heat and stir in chicken broth. Return to heat and simmer, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes.

Add cut asparagus stalks to broth mixture. Puree in blender, in batches, until smooth. Pour into a large, heavy saucepan; stir in cream and reserved asparagus tips. Reheat soup, but do not boil. Stir in lemon juice, then salt and white pepper. Serves 6.

- From A Private Collection 2

Italian Asparagus

1 pound fresh asparagus

1 onion, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons celery, chopped

1 large tomato, sliced

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1/8 teaspoon thyme

1/4 cup bread crumbs

2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated

3 tablespoons butter, melted11/2 pounds asparagus

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, finely chopped

1/2 cup roasted cashews, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon soy sauce

Line 9-by-13-inch pan with asparagus. Top with onion, celery and tomato. Sprinkle with seasonings, bread crumbs and cheese; drizzle with butter. Cover and bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Makes 4 servings. - From Purple Sage

Stir-Fry of Asparagus with Cashews

1 1/2 pounds asparagus

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, finely choped

1/2 cup roasted cashews, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon soy sauce

Cut off the tough lower stems of the asparagus and discard. Cut each stalk diagonally into 2-3 pieces. Heat the oils together in a wok over high heat. Add the ginger and stir-fry 1 minute. Add the asparagus and stir-fry until tender but still crisp, 4-5 minutes. Stir in the cashews and soy sauce. Serve immediately. Serves 6.