Wash asparagus just before cooking to remove any bit of grit left from the sandy soil it is usually grown in.
Asparagus does not usually need to be peeled unless you get a particularly stringy spear. This is despite the many recipes that call for this step. If it’s really fresh it should be nice and tender. To double check: after you cut off the woody end, cut a small piece and eat it. Make your decision about peeling then. The exception is if you are doing the shaved salad below or using fresh white asparagus which should always be peeled according to Harold McGee and others.
If the white woody base is still there when you buy asparagus then this has to be removed. Either chop it off, or snap the asparagus by holding the bottom and near the top with your hands — the idea is that it should snap right at the point where it starts getting tough. Drawback to this is that you’ll probably waste more of the tender spear than if you just cut the tough white base off with a knife. To be sure that you are into the tender part cut off a little of the base and eat it to test.
There are lots of ways to successfully cook asparagus. The key no matter which method you use is to make sure that you don’t overcook. The goal of “crisp-tender” should always be in your mind. Time will of course depend on the thickness of the spear.
Blanching: Drop the trimmed spears into boiling salted water and cook until just tender. If not eating right away then plunge into cold water to stop the cooking and set the color. Old recipes sometimes called for using baking soda in the cooking water to help preserve the color and soften the vegetable. While the former might be nice the latter isn’t. Most of us like our asparagus with a firm texture. Also baking soda destroys acids like Vitamin C.
Steaming: Takes a little longer than blanching but the rationale is that it retains more nutrients. There are asparagus steamers on the market in which you place the asparagus vertically with a little water in the bottom. The thicker bottoms get more heat than the tops and in theory this will evenly cook the whole spear. I use my Chinese bamboo steamer with good results.
Grilling: One of the simplest and best ways, to my taste, to cook asparagus is to give it a light coating of olive oil and grill it. Grilling brings out the sweetness and I prefer it to steaming or boiling which seems to bring out more of the “vegetal” notes. I’m convinced too that keeping the asparagus away from water seems to minimize that interesting condition called “asparagus pee”. I won’t go any further but see if it works for you!
Roasting: Similar to grilling except in the oven. Place the oiled and seasoned spears in a loose single layer on a baking sheet and either cook in a hot oven (450 degrees or more) or cook under a preheated broiler until just begin to brown. You’ll need to turn them a couple of times.
Stir Frying: You’ll need to cut the asparagus stalks into shorter lengths and then stir fry. You can either blanch the asparagus before stir frying which will cut down on time or you can just do it from raw. Up to you.
Microwaving: A great way of cooking asparagus which both preserves color and minimizes nutrient loss. Rinse, place in a microwave proof bowl, cover with plastic and cook till its crisp tender.
And now some recipes to try. Enjoy!
ASPARAGUS FRIES WITH SMOKED PAPRIKA AIOLI
The sweet spot for frying anything is 350 – 375 degrees. Ideally you should have a deep fry thermometer of some kind to regulate. If you don’t you can use a small cube of fresh bread to test or, as my grandmother did, put the handle end of a wooden spoon into the hot oil and if it bubbles nicely you are good to go. It’s important here to peel the asparagus so that the coating will stick to it.
3 cups or so vegetable oil for frying
1 pound or so big but tender asparagus peeled spears, woody ends removed (see side bar)
3/4 cup flour seasoned generously with salt and pepper
2 large eggs beaten with 2 tablespoons water
2 medium limes
1 cup panko bread crumbs
Smoked paprika aioli (recipe follows)
Heat the oil in a small saucepan to 375 degrees.
Test the asparagus to make sure it’s not tough or stringy. If so peel it first using a vegetable peeler. Cut asparagus into 2-inch lengths.
Place seasoned flour on a small plate. In a small bowl combine the egg mixture with the juice of one of the limes. Cut the other lime into 6 wedges. Place the panko on another small plate.
Dredge the asparagus first in the flour and shake off any excess. Then, dip into the egg mixture and finally into the panko to nicely coat. Fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove and drain briefly on paper towels. Serve immediately with the lime wedges and the smoked paprika aioli.
Smoked Paprika Aioli
Makes about 3/4 cup
4 large poached garlic cloves
1 tablespoon or so olive oil
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons smoked paprika or to taste
Drops of lemon juice to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Add all ingredients to a mini food processor and pulse till smooth. Store refrigerated for at least 1 hour to allow flavors to blend before using.
ASPARAGUS, POTATO AND PECORINO GRATIN
Serves 8 – 10 as a side dish
You’ll note there is no cream or milk in this variation of scalloped potatoes. It’s very simple to do and you could add some chopped fresh or sun dried tomatoes and other herbs if you liked. Be sure to use a fragrant, fruity olive oil for best results.
2-1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
2 pounds young asparagus, woody ends discarded and cut into 1-inch lengths
3/4 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil
2 cups coarse bread crumbs such as panko
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2-1/2 cups finely grated Pecorino cheese (about 6 ounces)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1-1/2 cups pitted and chopped black olives such as Cerignola or Oil Cured
Bring 6 – 8 quarts of salted* water to a boil. Slice the potatoes into 1/4-inch thick rounds add to boiling water, cook for 2 minutes and then remove with a strainer and cool on a baking sheet. In the same boiling water, blanch asparagus for 2 minutes, drain, run under cold water to stop the cooking and set the color. Set aside.
Oil a 3 quart, 3-inch deep baking dish with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. In a separate bowl mix the bread crumbs with the parsley, thyme and the Pecorino. Spread 1/3 of the potatoes in a single layer in the bottom of the baking dish, season generously with salt and pepper and top with 1/3 of the bread crumb mixture. Spread half of the asparagus and olives over this along with a third of the remaining olive oil and top with another layer of the potatoes, duplicating the first layer. Top with the final layer of potatoes and the bread crumbs drizzled with remaining olive oil.
Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 60 minutes or until potatoes are tender and top is golden brown. Serve warm.
* For blanching use sea salt and add enough so that water tastes like the ocean.