Just about the time I get tired of kale and parsnips, the first asparagus shows up in the markets. Its arrival signals that the seasons are shifting and the cold ground is coming back to life. Throughout the spring, I prepare asparagus several times a week, but I vary the cooking method. By alternating techniques, I can serve asparagus again and again without anyone growing bored.
To cook asparagus, I use both dry- and moist-heat methods. Grilling, roasting, and sautéing, all dry-heat methods, help preserve flavor because little or none is lost to the cooking liquid. But for large, meaty asparagus spears, I do like boiling, which is, of course, a wet-heat method. All four ways to cook asparagus give delicious results, and the technique I choose depends on the size of the spears and the accompanying flavors I have in mind.
To cut or to snap?
Opinions vary about how to prepare asparagus for cooking. Unless you buy spears that have already been trimmed to the top four or five inches, you’ll need to remove the tough ends. Some people simply cut the spears where the green color fades, but I prefer to snap off the ends. I hold each spear, one at a time, in both hands and bend it until it breaks naturally at the point at which it becomes tough. I think this is a more reliable trimming method, and I don’t mind that the snapped spears aren’t all exactly the same length.
Many cooks peel asparagus, especially large spears, but I never do. If you’ve snapped it properly, the entire spear will be tender, so peeling doesn’t enhance tenderness—it just removes flavor.
Size has little impact on tenderness
Every asparagus crown—as the root system is called—produces both thick and thin spears over the course of its 10- to 15-year life. Healthy plants in the prime of life will produce relatively more thick spears; new and old plants tend to yield more thin ones. I like asparagus at every size, and I think that jumbo spears can be just as tender as skinny ones.
I first encountered grilled asparagus years ago in a tapas bar in Spain. The sizzling spears, charred in spots, were served with aïoli (garlic mayonnaise), and they were a revelation. So that they’re cooked evenly through, I first blanch the spears briefly, which can be done ahead. Then I pat them dry, roll them in olive oil, season with salt, and grill them close to the coals. When they’re lightly charred on one side, I turn them to sear the other. This method works with spears of any size.
Roasting amps up the taste of asparagus because none of the flavor is lost to boiling water. This method works best with thin or medium asparagus and is the easiest preparation of all. After snapping the spears, I roll them in olive oil, sprinkle them with salt, and arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Then I roast them in a hot oven until they’re tender, lightly blistered, and sizzling.
Asparagus cooked in rapidly boiling water has a clean, mild flavor that invites a rich sauce, like an herbed vinaigrette, a piquant Italian salsa verde, or a mayonnaise. Boiling is also good for thick, meaty spears, which take a long time to cook thoroughly with a dry-heat method.
Boil spears in a large pot of generously salted water and remove them as soon as they lose their crispness—taste one to be sure. Drain on clean dishtowels; dress and serve warm. To serve asparagus cool, shock the spears in ice water after boiling; pat dry, dress, and serve. I think serving them actually cold mutes their flavor.
I don’t advocate steaming asparagus. A covered steamer traps gases that dull the spears’ bright green color, while boiling in salted water preserves the color and lightly salts the spears at the same time.
Sautéing works well on medium to large asparagus. The spears should be thinly sliced on the diagonal to expose the most flesh. Although I sauté the slices in butter, you could use olive oil, adjusting the heat so they cook rapidly but without browning. Like roasting, sautéing preserves and intensifies flavor because the spears are never blanched.