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THE AMERICAN TABLE: Recipe for grilled asparagus with lemon butter

This April 21, 2014, photo shows grilled asparagus with lemon butter in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

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This April 21, 2014, photo shows grilled asparagus with lemon butter in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

Grilling vegetables is magical, mostly because the intense heat caramelizes the natural sugars in them. It transforms vegetables from something you feel you have to eat into something you can't stop eating!

And grilled asparagus is one of my favourites. Not only is it delicious, it's also easy to make. And you only need four things — thick-stemmed asparagus, olive oil, kosher salt and a hot grill.

Somewhere along the way, a culinary myth started that thin asparagus is the best asparagus. Well, the opposite is true when it comes to grilling. The best asparagus for grilling has a thick, sturdy stalk. In fact, many chefs think this is true no matter how you cook it, saying thick asparagus tends to be more tender than thin asparagus.

Once you have your bunch of thick-stemmed asparagus, you need to trim it, wash it and dry it. You can snap or cut the ends off the bottoms one-at-a-time, or follow this restaurant prep trick. Take the whole bunch and cut just under the bottom rubber band. Almost always it rests at the space where the dried ends of the stalks end. If you think you are cutting off too much, wiggle the band down a little.

After you cut the ends off, remove the rubber bands, wash and dry the stalks, then place them in a zip-close plastic bag. Drizzle with olive oil, then close the bag. You can do this up to a day in advance.

When you are ready to grill, sprinkle with salt and place directly on the cooking grate of the grill. You do not need a vegetable basket. All you need is to make sure that you place the spears across the cooking grates instead of parallel to them. Turn occasionally until you see blistered brown spots.

Grilled asparagus is instantly addictive and excellent hot-off-the grill. But add a fresh compound butter made with white wine and lemon and you've got a dish worthy of any king — or queen — of the grill!

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GRILLED ASPARAGUS WITH LEMON BUTTER

Look for asparagus with fat, firm stalks and deep green or purplish tips. Also check the bottoms of the spears. If they are dried up, chances are they have been sitting around for too long.

Start to finish: 10 minutes

Servings: 4

1 pound fresh asparagus

1/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Lemon butter, to serve (see recipe below)

Heat the grill to medium and prepare for direct heat cooking. For a charcoal grill, the coals should be spread evenly under the grate. For a gas grill, all burners should be on.

Trim off the tough bottoms of the spears by grasping each end and bending it gently until it snaps at its natural point of tenderness, usually two-thirds of the way down the spear. If the spear is less than 6 inches long, chances are it has already been trimmed for you. Alternatively, you can cut the ends off with a knife.

Place the spears in a zip-close plastic bag. Add the oil and massage the spears to coat very well. Sprinkle in the salt and massage again. Leave the asparagus in the bag until ready to cook.

Use tongs to place the spears on the cooking grate crosswise so they won't fall through the grates. Grill for 5 to 8 minutes, turning occasionally to expose all sides to the heat. The asparagus should begin to brown in spots, but don't let them blacken and char. The larger the spears, the longer they will take to cook.

Remove from the grill and serve immediately with lemon butter.

Nutrition information per serving: 250 calories; 220 calories from fat (88 per cent of total calories); 25 g fat (9 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 30 mg cholesterol; 5 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 3 g protein; 600 mg sodium.

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LEMON BUTTER

This recipe makes enough lemon butter for 16 servings. Prepare the entire batch, then divide into quarters, freezing the portions you don't plan to use immediately. If tightly wrapped in plastic, the butter will keep all summer. It is delicious on almost any grilled vegetable.

Start to finish: 10 minutes

Servings: 16

2 shallots, minced (about 4 tablespoons)

2 tablespoons white wine

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

Zest of 1/2 small lemon

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon flaked sea salt (such as Maldon)

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

In a small bowl, combine the shallots and white wine. Let soak for 30 minutes. Drain very well.

In a medium bowl, mash or stir the butter until it is smooth and slightly fluffy. Add the wine-soaked shallots, then mix well. Add the parsley, lemon zest, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Mix together, mashing with the back of a fork to make sure all the ingredients are incorporated. Adjust salt and pepper, as needed.

Cut a large rectangle of kitchen parchment. Drop the butter onto the centre of it by the spoonful to form a log. Roll the butter in the parchment and smooth out to form a round log. Twist both ends to seal. Refrigerate until hard and easily sliced, about 1 hour. Can be made in advance and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to a week and in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Nutrition information per serving: 110 calories; 100 calories from fat (91 per cent of total calories); 12 g fat (7 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 30 mg cholesterol; 1 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 0 g protein; 120 mg sodium.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."

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