Asparagus is the deal breaker: Strawberries are pretty, and tender lettuce is nice. But the arrival of fresh asparagus is the sign that spring is official.
It’s also a deal breaker on cooking. With really fresh asparagus, boiling or steaming isn’t the best way to go. Its grassy flavor is better with methods that concentrate the flavor — roasting, or pan-frying, even microwaving. It’s perfect for really fast cooking. Overcooked asparagus is limp. Good asparagus needs just a little crunch.
The season for the very best asparagus doesn’t last long, just a month or so. Make the best of it with these tips, and the three easiest asparagus dishes I know:
Choose it: Look for tight heads (if they're shedding, skip them). Check the bottom of the cut ends. If they're so dry they have holes, skip them. Avoid stalks that have ridges, a sign they're old or woody.
Which size? Depends on what you’re doing with it: Thin spears are great for slicing into short sections and sauteing. Fat are best for roasting, grilling and shaving into raw asparagus salad. Medium can go either way.
Store it: Wrap a wet paper towel around the bottoms and tuck into an open plastic bag with the tops sticking out. If you have the room, you can also stand the bunch up in a little water in a jar and refrigerate it. Keep it up to a week.
Snap or peel? If you hold a stalk between your two hands and gently bend it, it will snap off right where the bottom of the stalk gets too tough. If you can’t bear to lose that much, cut off the bottom 2 inches, then use a vegetable peeler to shave off the tough skin for several inches up the stalk. (Snapping is faster, though.)
PICK AN APPLIANCE
Oven: Toss trimmed stalks with a little oil. Spread in a single layer on a baking pan. Sprinkle with some coarse salt. Place in the oven at 425 degrees and roast for 10 to 12 minutes, giving the pan a good jerk about halfway through to roll the spears.
Stove: This method originally came from the late Edna Lewis: Trim the bottoms of the spears. Place 1 to 2 tablespoons butter in a cast-iron skillet and heat until foaming. Lay the asparagus stalks in the skillet and roll around to coat with the butter. Cover and cook over medium heat about 3 minutes. Uncover and turn the stalks. Cook with the lid off 4 to 5 minutes longer, until tender but still bright green. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve hot.
Microwave: Food Network chef Alton Brown came up with this, and it's my go-to asparagus method. Trim off the ends. Pour 1/4 cup water into a plate, then place a two-sheet length of paper towels on it to soak up the water. Place all the asparagus on the towel in a single layer and sprinkle with salt. Roll up. Microwave for 3 to 4 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears. Use tongs to unroll the paper towels.
Grill: Toss with a little oil (olive or vegetable). Lay across the grates so you don't lose any, then cover and grill about 2 minutes. Uncover the grill, use tongs to roll them around, cover and cook no more than 2 minutes. Remove from heat, sprinkle with salt and serve.
ASPARAGUS WITH DIJON MUSTARD SAUCE AND HARD-COOKED EGG
About 1 pound thick asparagus, bottoms trimmed or snapped off
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Pinch of salt and a few grinds of freshly ground black pepper
Place the eggs in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil. Cover, remove from heat and let stand 16 minutes. Remove eggs to a bowl of ice water or rinse to cool. Peel and roughly chop.
Cook asparagus however you like: Grilled, microwaved, roasted or in a skillet.
Mix mayonnaise, mustard, water and vinegar in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Arrange asparagus on a platter. Spoon the sauce over them and top with chopped egg.
Yield: 4 servings.
SHAVED ASPARAGUS AND SUGAR SNAP SALAD
When the asparagus shows up, the sugar snap peas usually aren’t far behind. If you don’t have sugar snaps, use frozen peas, rinsed to thaw, and skip cooking them.
About 1 cup sugar snap peas, stems pulled off
4 or 5 thick asparagus spears
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, minced
2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan
Salt and pepper
Bring a small pan of water to boil and add a good pinch of salt. Cut the sugar snap peas in half diagonally, then throw them, peas, pods and all, into the water. Cook 3 minutes, drain and rinse under cold water. Drain well.
Place in a serving bowl. Use a sharp vegetable peeler to shave the asparagus down the length of the stalks, sort of like shaving the end of a pencil, shaving the whole thing up to the tip and letting the strips and the tips fall into the bowl with the peas.
In a small bowl, combine the mint and lemon or lime juice. Whisk in the olive oil, then stir in the Parmesan. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour over the asparagus and peas and toss.
Yield: 4 servings.
ASPARAGUS WITH AVGOLEMONO SAUCE
From nutritionist and cookbook author Ellie Krieger in The Washington Post.
1/3 cup no-salt-added chicken broth
1 large egg
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 bunch (14 to 16 ounces) asparagus, tough ends trimmed
Heat the broth in a medium saucepan over medium heat; once it bubbles at the edges, reduce the heat to low.
Whisk the egg in a medium bowl until foamy, then add the lemon juice and cornstarch, whisking until incorporated. Gradually whisk 2 tablespoons hot broth into the egg mixture.
Pour the mixture into the saucepan with the remaining broth over low heat; cook, stirring constantly for about 3 minutes, to form a lightly thickened sauce. Remove from the heat, stir in the salt and cover to keep warm. Can be made to this point and refrigerated.
Cook the asparagus (roast, pan-fry, grill or microwave). Serve drizzled with the sauce.
Yield: 4 servings.