When I lived in Walnut Creek, California, I had a neighbor named Harold. He was 87 years old, but he still worked in his garden every day. Every June, we’d walk through his orchard together, tasting the best of the season’s first offerings. What I remember most from those walks, aside from Harold’s gentle disposition, was the wild asparagus that grew between the rows of pear trees. Harold and I would pick the asparagus, and he’d patiently arrange it like a bouquet of flowers for me to take home.
Now that I live in New York City, that sacred little orchard seems like a dream to me, existing only in my memory as I walk past the brownstones on my block. But even without a garden at my doorstep, I still try to cook with only what’s in season.
In spring, I eagerly look forward to the sight of bunches of sweet, tender asparagus, which usually stand tall among the produce as if in salute to the new season. For the short time it’s at its best, I cook and serve it all different ways, with a simple citrus vinaigrette and orange slices one night, or tossed with morels, pasta, and cream on another.
For the best flavor, ignore size and look for freshness
Here in the United States, asparagus is usually green, though you might see pretty purple spears at farmers’ markets. In Europe, soil is often mounded around the spears as they grow, keeping the shoots from direct sunlight, which results in white spears touched with a hint of purple. The taste of all three varieties is similar, but purple (which turns green when cooked) tends to be a little sweeter.
Many people think that thin asparagus is the most tender. But the truth is that asparagus of any size can be sweet and tender as long as it’s fresh. Look for pencil-thin asparagus early in the spring, and fatter, succulent spears as the season progresses.
Check the bottom of the spears for age. When shopping for asparagus, choose firm stalks with tightly closed buds at the tip. The color should be vivid with no signs of fading. Asparagus begins to lose its sweetness the moment it’s cut. Check the stem ends for freshness: the best asparagus looks freshly cut and not at all dried out.
Store asparagus in water and use it soon. Asparagus lasts longest if its stem ends are submerged in water (another good sign to look for when shopping). I like to treat asparagus like flowers and refrigerate the spears in a glass with half an inch of water. Cook the asparagus within two days for the best flavor.
To prepare spears for cooking, grasp at either end and snap. The stalk will break naturally at the point where it starts to get tough and stringy. Use the fibrous ends for stock or for your compost pile. If the asparagus is thick-skinned or fibrous (take a small bite to test), peel the spears from just under the head to the stem end.
Steam to preserve its fresh flavor, roast to intensify its sweetness
From March through May, I eat a lot of asparagus, yet I never tire of it because I change its personality with different cooking methods. Steaming and boiling preserve asparagus’s grassy freshness and are great ways to cook it for cold salads. Sautéing and stir-frying are quick ways to cook thin slices, while roasting and grilling whole spears intensify their sweetness. I love the caramelized flavor of roasted asparagus, which just begs for a squeeze of lemon and some shaved Parmesan.
Boiling lets you add a dash of flavor. When boiling asparagus, be sure to salt the water: use about 2 tablespoons of salt for 5 quarts of water. I boil asparagus uncovered so I can easily check it for doneness. I sometimes infuse the water with flavor by simmering a head of garlic with the top sliced off, three bay leaves, and a shallot for 10 minutes, scooping them all out, and then cooking the asparagus in the water.
Steaming is great for just a few spears. Lay the spears in a single layer in a steaming rack over water, cover the pot, and cook until just tender.
Sautéing adds a golden, crisp edge. I usually slice my asparagus quite thin on the diagonal when I’m sautéing it so it cooks up tenderly in just a few minutes. Asparagus is especially delicious sautéed in butter or fruity olive oil. A tasty, unexpected way to serve asparagus is fried until golden brown and a little crispy.
Grilling pairs smoky and sweet flavors. To grill asparagus, brush it with olive oil, salt it lightly, and grill it over medium-low heat, turning it often. It’s done when tender and marked with browned, caramelized spots where it was in contact with the grill. If you parboil the spears for a minute before grilling, you can raise the heat and cook them more quickly without worrying about burning the outside before the inside is tender.
Roasting makes asparagus nutty and sweet. Simply spread the spears on a baking sheet, lightly brush them with olive oil, and sprinkle them with salt. Stick them in a 400°F oven and take them out when tender, usually in 10 to 12 minutes. Serve them hot or at room temperature.
Cooking time depends on the thickness and tenderness of the spears, on how crowded your pot or pan is, and on how you like your asparagus. I don’t like it to crunch when I eat it, but overcooked, mushy asparagus is even more offensive. I start testing after a few minutes by piercing the end with a knife or taking a bite. I consider it done when it’s barely tender and the knife meets slight resistance. Keep in mind that asparagus will cook further with residual heat once it’s out of the pot or off the grill.
I never shock asparagus (or any vegetable) after cooking. Plunging it into ice water after cooking leaches out vitamins as well as flavor. Instead, I cool the spears in a single layer at room temperature.
Four spur-of-the-moment asparagus dishes
- Make a tortino — an omelet that’s more asparagus than egg. Sauté 1/4 pound thinly sliced asparagus in butter in an 8-inch nonstick pan until just tender. Pour an egg beaten with a little cream over the asparagus and cook just until the egg has set.
- Serve roasted or grilled asparagus with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and a few shavings of Parmesan.
- Dress boiled asparagus with brown butter, bacon, capers, and lemon juice. A sieved hard-cooked egg and an anchovy or two are great additions, too.
- Fry asparagus with julienned ginger for a side dish that sings. Sauté the ginger over high heat in a little oil until crisp and golden brown. Add the asparagus, cook until tender, and drain any excess oil.