We eat our seasons, don’t we? Reheat soups, stews and the like in winter. Cool and cooling foods come in the summer, like ice cream of course, and salads and grilled foods that get out of the heat of the kitchen.
Spring means asparagus and asparagus means spring. It turns out that really fresh asparagus is still growing at the grocer. Every spearhead that comes loose, every shaft that wilts, every cut end that shrivels – we shun such, knowing that the nutty, sweet, grassy flavor will be much less, the crunchy texture not bruised, the character unsprung, “unspringy”.
The diameter of asparagus means nothing but the age of its mother crown, hidden beneath the surface of its protective and fertile soil, and producing its spears every year. If it is a young crown, the spears will be thin; if older, thicker.
All fresh asparagus, thick or thin, taste the same. Thicker spears may have a more fibrous skin and so may benefit from a skin of their lower half. But that’s not always the case. Treat each spear after you get to know it. Even thin spears can benefit from being peeled, or thick at their best when left alone.
The adage to “break an asparagus spear where it naturally breaks” wastes a huge amount of vegetables. It breaks where you put your fingers. You only need to cut off an inch or more from the end, using a sharp knife, so that all the spears are even in length, both to make cooking easier and to please the eyes of your guests.
Cool trimmed asparagus in at least 2 inches of water, placed in a large-mouth jar or container, all covered with a snap-on shower cap. This way they stay good for a week, because they are real cut flowers. Still, you want to eat them well before they wilt.
Always wash fresh asparagus in cold or cold water a few times. Like leeks and some celery—and all cilantro, it seems forever—asparagus picks up grit as it pushes itself toward the sun and out of its bottom bed. The tips (especially if not closed as tightly as a child’s fist on candy) and the bracts along the shaft can contain fine and not easily visible sand.
Most asparagus can be boiled, broiled, blanched, braised, steamed, stir-fry, grilled, broiled or eaten raw, and each method has its own benefits. Cooking times depend on the method, but thin skewers rarely take more than three minutes to cook through, swim in, or cook over any heat. Thicker spears, a few minutes more, but only.
Butter bathes it best, fueled by something sour like lemon. This is why unsalted cultured butter, with its ever so light yogurt-like taste, is the best butter of the best.
Eggs do well, especially eggs with a runny yolk. Ham helps. It bakes well and is successfully pureed as an important seasoning for a soup, whether warm or lukewarm in temperature.
The recipes here bring out the best in asparagus. In her groundbreaking “The Taste of Country Cooking,” Edna Lewis is a minimalist cook at it, not even shaving the ends. My mother, Madeleine St. John, also clearly covered it in her cooking school La Bonne Cuisine recipe (sadly gone). Lemon, in two forms, surrounds it like a picture frame.
Happy Mother’s Day by the way to all cooking mamas, mamas and mama or mothering chefs. Asparagus really is your most important vegetable as they show up at their best at that time of year of your special day.
Frying pan Asparagus
From Edna Lewis on saveur.com, an adaptation of her book “The Taste of Country Cooking.” Serves 4-6.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 pounds asparagus, stringy bottoms trimmed
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the foam is gone, add the asparagus and shake the pan to cover the green beans. Cover and cook, shaking occasionally, until bright green but still crisp, about 3 minutes.
Uncover and continue cooking until asparagus is tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, 5-10 minutes longer (the thicker the spears, the longer the cooking time). Season with salt and black pepper.
Asparagus with lemon dressing
From Madeleine St. John, La Bonne Cuisine Cooking School, Denver. Serves 4.
- 24 slim asparagus spears
- 4 large leaves Romaine lettuce
- For the lemon dressing:
- 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon of water
- For the garnish:
- 8 thin julienne strips of lemon zest
Cut the asparagus off about 3 centimeters below the tips. (Save the bottom to use for stock.) Cook the spears in 3 liter boiling water for 5 minutes. When they are cooked, immediately submerge them in very cold or ice water and let them cool. Drain them, wrap them in kitchen paper and put them in the fridge. (This will make them crispy.)
Before serving, place a lettuce leaf on each of the 4 chilled plates and arrange 6 asparagus on each leaf. Combine dressing ingredients in a cup, mix well with a fork and drizzle about 1 tablespoon of dressing over each serving. Decorate with the lemon zest strips.
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