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Thursday
May032012

Asparagus

Asparagus is delicious, and only available fresh in the spring.  It's also quick to cook, and goes well with lots of things--we've had it lately alongside pot roast, rice, and leftover red coconut curry with tofu.

Some say that asparagus is best when it is "young and slender." The truth is that asparagus stalks emerge from the ground already as slender or as stout as they will get.  They grow taller, not much fatter, as the days go by.  Thick asparagus stalks are a sign of a robust crown, with plenty of stored energy to send up its shoots.  Flavor is affected most by freshness.  As for tenderness: Any fresh asparagus will be tender if it is properly cooked.  Overcooked asparagus is mushy inside and tough outside.  Slender stalks are easier to cook evenly, which may have given rise to the slender-equals-tender myth; I recommend cutting thick stalks in half lengthwise.

Before cooking asparagus, snap the bottom off of each stalk.  (Some of this snapped-off part is tender inside, and can be peeled and cooked, if you want to get the most out of your asparagus.  You can also use this part for soup, and strain out the fibers after cooking.)

My favorite way to cook asparagus at present is this:  First, cut thicker stalks in half lengthwise, then cut all the stalks in half crosswise.  Heat some butter (less than a tablespoon) in a cast-iron or nonstick skillet big enough to hold all the asparagus in not more than 2 layers.  You want medium-high heat.  Arrange the asparagus in the skillet so that as much of it as possible is lying flat on the bottom, and cover the pan for a couple of minutes.  Then uncover it.  When some of the asparagus turns a darker green, start poking it with a paring knife; when you find one that is just tender, take it out and put it on a plate.  Stir now and then so different surfaces can brown, and keep removing the stalks as they become tender (hint: small ones cook faster).  When they're all piled on the plate, salt and pepper them, and serve them warm. 

Asparagus is also great broiled:  Cut thick stalks in half lengthwise, brush with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt; and broil a few inches from the flame until they are tender to a paring knife and showing lots of brown spots.  Delicious, but keep a close eye on it to prevent overcooking.