If you've never had properly cooked asparagus, you're missing out on something wonderful indeed.
I was reminded of its simple and irrefutable pleasure on a recent trip to Mexico City, over lunch at Máximo Bistrot Local, Eduardo García's glammy restaurant in the Colonia Roma neighborhood. I chose as a starter "espárragos, holandesa, ajo tostado," and loved what was set before me: fat, jumbo asparagus, beautifully trimmed and peeled nearly to the tips, poached to almost custardy tenderness and served with luscious, lightly lemony and perfect hollandaise sauce on one side and silky, buttery pea purée on the other.
Classic hollandaise for me is a luxury (maybe it's time to rediscover its joys in a post!), but the real revelation on that plate was this: So many professional kitchens send asparagus spears to the table undercooked that if you're accustomed to eating it in restaurants, it's entirely possible you've never experienced how luscious it can be.
(Meanwhile, Máximo chef-owner Eduardo García has a pretty amazing cook-busting-borders story.)
Undercooked asparagus, crunchy and forbidding, can taste like a punishment. But if you simmer asparagus long enough to cook it through, its texture becomes soft and almost creamy, and its lovely flavor comes into full bloom.
It's worth taking the time to peel it first. First trim off the woody end of the stalk, then use a vegetable peeler to (gently, so you don't break the stalk) peel it about two thirds of the way up to the tip. I find that letting the spear rest flat on the cutting board and using only very gentle pressure to peel gets the job done most easily.
Set a pan of salted water to a boil, add the asparagus and cook, covered, until the spears are tender. How long this will take depends on their thickness. Medium-thin to medium spears will take about 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 minutes, jumbos a bit longer.
But rather than time them, I lift them gently with tongs, and when they're just a bit floppy, like this:
. . . I pull them out.
Then I might serve them warm, letting a small pat of butter melt over them first if that's my mood, or leaving them plain if I'm going lo-cal.
If you know your way around a kitchen, you won't need an actual recipe for this, but in case you do, here you go:
Once you discover or rediscover this simple pleasure, you'll probably want to branch out. You can prepare the spears this way, skip the butter, pour a vinaigrette over them and serve them either warmish or room temp. You can also shock them in cold water, chill them, then dress in vinaigrette later. For the vinaigrette, I might go one of four ways: simple vinaigrette with a little Dijon mustard; the same boosted with a dab of anchovy paste; dressed in a simple vinaigrette then garnished with crushed pink peppers; or dressed in a shallot vinaigrette.
Last spring, I became obsessed with gribiche, which continues to show up on fashionable restaurant menus. Whether you make a classic version or a more modern one (like the new-wave one shown below), it's spectacular on poached asparagus.
Of course there's an exception to the thorough cooking idea: Shaved raw asparagus can be wonderful in salads or as a garnish on fish or chicken dishes. But when you do choose to cook them, the lesson of thorough cooking holds for other methods besides poaching: stir-frying, roasting or grilling. (Lots of people steam asparagus, but it's not a method I love for this veg.) In any case, if you cook them past that hard, green-tasting crunchiness, they're so much nicer.
Want more asparagus ideas? Here are a million, more or less.
Isn't this the greatest season?!