Spring is a new beginning. At the produce stand, spring starts with "A" for asparagus, one of the most versatile of vegetables. Asparagus can be served raw, steamed, boiled, sauteed, roasted, stir-fried, deep-fried, pureed for soup or a dip, and baked in custards, tarts and souffles.
* Selecting: Begin with color. Green is the most common, purple the rarest and white, which is prized in Europe, the most fibrous. You will also find a variety of thicknesses: Skinny pencil-thin spears are best raw, whole for crudites or cut in salads. Medium stalks (the most common) are sold by the bunch, typically about a pound or 12 to 15 spears. Really big, meaty asparagus stalks — those an inch thick — can stand alone, with three to four to a serving.
* Storing: Asparagus will hold up for a few days wrapped in a damp paper or cloth towel in the refrigerator's humidifier drawer. Or stand the stalks up in the refrigerator in a container with about 2 inches of water in the bottom.
* Preparing: Except for the skinniest asparagus, the woody end of each stalk should be snapped off where they break naturally. If you plan to slant-cut your asparagus in inch-long pieces for a stir-fry, or cook and puree for soup or a dip, there's no need to peel beforehand. For other dishes, however, all but the top quarter of the spear should be peeled. A regular vegetable peeler will do fine, although there are efficient specialized utensils with a peeling feature built in that grip the stalk. To boil asparagus, simply lay the spears flat in a skillet and cover with water. For steaming, tall, narrow asparagus pots will keep the spears upright, although a steamer basket big enough to hold them lying down in a deep saute pan or skillet works fine. Thicker stalks should be more thoroughly cooked.
* Serving: As with corn, there's a whole cottage industry of specialized asparagus tools and servers. Porcelain and Majolica plates and platters decorated with asparagus patterns, as well as indented silver asparagus tongs for serving, are the stuff of antiques markets. Books on manners once addressed the propriety of eating asparagus like finger food, but it depends on the preparation. Spears drenched in hollandaise require a fork. Trendier preparations include pureeing asparagus for a guacamolelike dip or shaving them raw with a vegetable peeler for a refreshing green tangle in a spring or summer salad.
Shaved Asparagus With Arugula and Parmesan
Total time: About 20 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1/2 pound large or medium asparagus
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
6 ounces arugula, washed and dried
Chunk of Parmesan, for shaving
Sliced prosciutto (optional)
Snap off and discard the tough ends of the asparagus. Using a mandoline, sharp vegetable peeler or thin-bladed knife, slice the asparagus lengthwise into paper-thin ribbons.
In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice and olive oil to make a dressing. Season to taste with salt and pepper
Place the asparagus ribbons in a shallow salad bowl. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and coat with half the dressing. Add the arugula, tossing gently to distribute the asparagus. Drizzle with the remaining dressing.
With a vegetable peeler, shave thin curls of Parmesan over the salad. Accompany with a platter of sliced prosciutto, if desired.
— David Tanis
Asparagus With Brown Butter
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
2 dozen medium asparagus stalks, 1 1/2 to 2 pounds
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
Snap off the ends of the asparagus where they naturally break. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the outside of each stalk about 3/4 the way up. Line a serving platter with a couple layers of paper towels.
Fill a skillet large enough to hold the asparagus with 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil, add the asparagus, then cover and cook for about 6 minutes, until just tender. Use tongs to lift the asparagus from the water, draining well, and place on the platter. Place the cover of the skillet or a sheet of foil over them to keep warm.
Pour off any water from the skillet, and wipe it dry. Place the butter in the skillet, and heat on medium until it turns nut-brown and fragrant; remove from the heat immediately. Slip the paper towels out from under the asparagus, season them with salt and pepper and pour the hot butter over them, turning to coat well. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.
— Jacques Pépin