Goodbye, Brussels sprouts. Hello, asparagus – springtime's A-list vegetable.
Of course fava beans, English peas and artichokes rock the season as well, but asparagus stands apart, as it's so abundant and easy to get along with. If asparagus were as expensive as it was once upon a time, we'd likely celebrate it as a luxury, up there with morels and ramps and fiddlehead ferns. But it's not – which is why it finds a starring role on my table several times a week when it's in season.
There are a million delicious things you can do with it, from steaming to roasting to grilling to braising, sautéeing or stir-frying – even shaving the stalks with a peeler and adding them raw to a salad.
Most traditional is steaming it – in one of those upright baskets. I've never owned one; instead I trim the ends, use a vegetable peeler to peel the stalks halfway up or more, lay them flat in a wide pan and simmer them in salted water. After draining the stalks well, you can dress them in butter and serve them warm or send them to the table with a fluffy, lemony hollandaise. Or dress them in vinaigrette (that's lovely served warm, at room temp or chilled). Or keep them naked, chill 'em and serve with mayo.
Easiest is roasting asparagus. A turn in the oven gives it a completely different character, no less delicious. Just snap off the tough bottoms or trim them with a knife, lay them on a baking sheet with a teaspoon or so of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, roll the stalks around to coat them, and roast for 17 minutes (for stalks of medium thickness) at 400 degrees F.
Grilling is nearly as easy: Brush the stalks or roll them around in a little olive oil, sprinkle with salt, toss them on the grill or a hot grill pan and cook until they're just tender.
One mistake people (including home cooks and many a restaurant) often make: undercooking them. They shouldn't be crunchy; they need to be tender. How to know when they're done? Use tongs to lift them up by the middle of the stalk. When they're done, they'll droop a bit on either side.
Last spring I fell in love with Steven Satterfield's recipe for roasted asparagus with green garlic and radishes, from his then-just-published cookbook Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons. I haven't been able to find green garlic where I live in North Texas, so used regular garlic, Satterfield's suggested substitution. Simple and fabulous, the dish instantly became a regular player in my spring repertoire. Best of all, it's so easy to put together you don't even really need the recipe: Just cut the asparagus into 1 1/2-inch lengths, cut the radishes into quarters and toss both in a bowl with a little olive oil, finely chopped garlic, salt and pepper. Spread them on a baking sheet, baking dish or roasting pan and roast in a 400 degree oven till they're just tender, about 15 minutes. Want more specifics? Here's the adapted recipe:
The technique is brilliant: Place asparagus spears flat in a pan with a good deal of butter and a little water, salt and pepper; cover the pan and cook till the asparagus is just tender. Remove the asparagus and reduce the cooking liquid to nice sauce. Tanis adds lemon zest, lemon juice and chopped herbs, then garnishes the dish with herb leaves. It was super, though I had to tweak the recipe a bit (mine needed more liquid and longer in the pan; I added more water and a little more butter. I'll add an adapted recipe here once have time to retest it (watch this space!). In any case, butter-braising gives the asparagus a rich and luxurious silkiness and this too will become a go-to treatment chez moi. I love the lemon and herb flavors with it, but it should be great without them, too.
Meanwhile, in case you're wondering about the photo that leads off this post, that's a salad of shaved raw asparagus, sautéed asparagus and black lentils from Michael Anthony's V is for Vegetables, which just won a James Beard Foundation Book Award in the category of Vegetable Focused and Vegetarian. Again, this recipe needed some adjustments (more acid in the dressing, for one thing), but it's pretty swell, so I'll tweak and provide an adaptation soon! (I was wowed last fall by Anthony's cooking at Untitled at the Whitney Museum in New York City, so was excited to cook from his book).
Are you still with me? I want you to have all these asparagus ideas and recipes in one place. Another great way to serve asparagus is with sauce gribiche, whether the new-wave version shown in the photo above, or a slightly more traditional one. Just simmer the stalks in salted water, roast or grill them (as explained earlier in this post), and dress with the gribiche of your choice. Here's the new-wave gribiche recipe:
And here's an adaptation of Judy Rodger's four-minute egg gribiche from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook:
Just one more direction, and it's a good one: Stir-fry asparagus Chinese-style. I wrote about this version adapted from Lucky Peach 101 Easy Asian Recipes in mid-February, when springtime was still a dream away.
I know you want the recipe. Here you go:
Now let's get cooking!