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.
As Easter approaches, brush up on your asparagus repertoire:
>> 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 (see recipe on facing page).
>> 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 it breaks naturally. If you plan to slant-cut your asparagus for a stir-fry, or to 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 efficient specialized utensils may be found. 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 works fine, too. Asparagus may also be grilled, roasted, sauteed and microwaved.
>> Serving: A whole cottage industry is devoted to specialized asparagus tools and servers. Porcelain and Majolica plates and platters decorated with asparagus patterns, as well as indented silver asparagus tongs, 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 dip like guacamole, 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
- 1/2 pound large or medium asparagus, trimmed
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 6 ounces arugula, washed and dried
- Chunk of Parmesan cheese, for shaving
- Sliced prosciutto (optional)
Using a mandoline, sharp vegetable peeler or thin-bladed knife, slice asparagus lengthwise into paper-thin ribbons.
In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Place asparagus ribbons in a shallow salad bowl. Season lightly with more salt and pepper; coat with half the dressing. Add arugula, tossing gently to distribute asparagus. Drizzle with remaining dressing.
With vegetable peeler, shave thin curls of Parmesan over salad. Accompany with a platter of sliced prosciutto, if desired. Serves 4 to 6.
Asparagus With Brown Butter
- 24 medium asparagus stalks, 1-1/2 to 2 pounds, trimmed
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
Use vegetable peeler to peel each stalk about 3/4 of the way up. Line a serving platter with a couple layers of paper towels.
Fill a skillet large enough to hold asparagus with 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil, add asparagus, then cover and cook 6 minutes, until just tender. Remove asparagus, draining well, and place on platter. Cover to keep warm.
Wipe skillet dry. Place butter in skillet and heat on medium until butter turns nut-brown and fragrant; remove from heat immediately.
Remove paper towels from under asparagus, season spears with salt and pepper, then cover with hot butter, turning to coat well. Sprinkle with parsley. Serves 4 to 6.