Cooking Tips

Asparagus – A Sign of Spring

My husband just harvested the first asparagus spears of the season. Since it is not a long season, I like to make the best of it and serve it in many different ways. With that first harvest I made a wonderful Skillet Asparagus Salad with Goat Cheese from Cooking Light. To encourage you to experiment, I thought I would devote this Cooking Tip to just that subject – Asparagus.

If you are not growing your own asparagus, you need to purchase it at the store. Choose spears with firm stalks and tightly closed tips. Try to buy a bunch with similarly sized stalks for even cooking. When you bring it home, trim a small amount off the bottom of the stalks and place in a jar or glass with a bit of water in the bottom. Cover loosely with a plastic bag. Store in the refrigerator. Change the water daily. It is best, though, to eat it as soon as possible

There are different varieties of asparagus – green, purple and white. Purple asparagus gets its color from anthocyanins, the same pigments that give us other purple food such as grapes. White is just green asparagus this is grown in darkness under the dirt. Because photosynthesis is limited, chlorophyll doesn’t develop and the resulting spears are white.

You will also notice that asparagus spears come in different widths from very thin (pencil) to thick. The thin spears are best for sautéing, steaming or grilling whereas the thick spears are better if you wish to roast or braise them although they can also be steamed or boiled.

When you are ready to eat it, it should be thoroughly washed and then the woody part of the stem removed. Most people teach the “snap” method. Pick up a spear and gently bend it. They are said to naturally snap where the tender part ends and the woody part begins. Cooks Illustrated feels this method is too imprecise and wasteful. They just trim the bottom one inch, which is the woodiest part. Then, they peel the bottom half to expose the white flesh.

Realize that it only takes a short time to properly cook asparagus. Thin asparagus will only take a couple of minutes. Thicker spears will take a few minutes longer.

There are various methods of cooking asparagus.

Steaming

Place asparagus in a steamer basket and cook gently over simmering water just until tender. This method is great for preserving the green color.

Boiling

You can boil asparagus but it will not take very long. If you are not serving it right away, you may want to plunge it into ice water once it is tender to avoid overcooking and loss of color. This is essentially blanching, a method where you cook it in simmering water just until it is tender and then you put it in an ice bath.

Microwave

Place in a microwave-safe dish with 2 tablespoons of water. Cover and microwave on high for about 3 minutes. Stir and continue to cook just until tender, another 2 or 3 minutes.

Pan searing

Cooking in a hot skillet with butter/oil is a great and quick method. This is what I did for the above mentioned Asparagus Salad.

Grilling

Lay directly across the grill grates or use a grill basket. You can also grill inside by using a grill pan.

Braising

This method goes against the standard wisdom of cooking asparagus only until it is crisp tender and still bright green. However, Keith Dresser of Cooks Illustrated highly recommends it. To do this, choose the larger spears that are at least ¾ inch thick. Peel the skin until the white skin is exposed, which helps the braising liquid to get into the interior of the stalk. Bring a large skillet of water/chicken broth/olive oil/salt to a simmer and add the asparagus in a single layer. Cook covered until the spears are tender. Remove the lid, continue to cook while shaking the skillet until the pan is almost dry. This creates a light glaze that coats the asparagus. Add flavorings such as lemon/chives or orange/tarragon.

Pan steamed

This method combines the methods of sauteing and steaming. To start with, you put the asparagus into a skillet with water and seasonings, cover and steam it for about 2 minutes. Then, you uncover and cook until almost dry and asparagus is crisp tender.

Roasting

Roasting is a bit tricky because the spears can easily overcook and lose their nice green color by the time they brown. To use this method, choose thicker spears. As with many roasted veggies, putting your baking sheet in the oven while it is preheating is very helpful to getting the right result. This means the spears will start to sear as soon as they hit the hot pan. Cooks Illustrated tested different roasting methods and recommends a very hot oven (500°F) with the baking sheet placed at the lowest position. They caution against shaking or stirring the asparagus while it is cooking. This resulted in asparagus that was crisp-tender, deeply browned on one side and green on the other.

One of my favorite recipes that used roasted asparagus is from My Recipes, Roasted Asparagus & Arugula Salad with Poached Egg. It is not only extremely tasty but can make an impressive starter or first course for a dinner party.

How you decide to cook your asparagus is your choice. I just encourage you take advantage of this wonderful vegetable during its peak season. Your taste buds will thank you!