Friday, April 6, 2012

A Gift, a Favorite Method for Cooking Asparagus and a few Asparagus Basics

In my last post, while discussing this year's early asparagus season, I mentioned my friend Jenny who farms in the Lawrence area (I mentioned her because they began harvesting asparagus last week). In addition to farming, Jenny also works as a class assistant at The Community Mercantile in Lawrence. This week when she arrived to work a class that I was teaching, she brought me a gift...a beautiful bunch of asparagus from her farm. I couldn't wait to get home so I could make something with it. I had it for lunch the next day, simply cooked in butter and topped with some soft scrambled eggs with chives from my garden—a classic springtime treat.

The method I used to cook the asparagus is probably my favorite way to prepare really lets the asparagus shine. It is a simple method that Edna Lewis calls "skillet asparagus"; Patricia Wells refers to it as "braised asparagus".  Because there is no added liquid, the asparagus isn't really being braised—it is nearer to a technique Madeleine Kamman calls étuvéeing. I love this technique because the flavor of the finished asparagus is concentrated—rather than watered down as with boiling—and the texture is tender without being mushy.

The asparagus that Jenny brought me was exceptional...but I knew by looking at it that it was going to be good.

Jenny had told me that the asparagus had been recently harvested, but even if she hadn't told me, I would have known it had been cut fairly recently because the cut ends were still moist and had not yet begun to shrivel and harden. The spears were a beautiful deep green and were firm and crisp. Asparagus that is past its prime will be dull in color and will have begun to wither a bit and become limp due to loss of moisture. Finally the tips of the spears Jenny gave me were tightly packed and firm. Asparagus that has been hanging around too long after harvest will have soft, sometimes even slimy, tips. When asparagus has been harvested past its prime you will be able to tell because the tips will have begun to open up in preparation of flower production. To keep the asparagus you purchase in good shape for as long as possible, store it in the refrigerator, upright, with the ends in water—like flowers in a vase.

To prepare the asparagus for any cooking method, rinse it well to remove any grit lodged in the tips. If the asparagus seems especially dirty, let it soak in some cool water for a few moments to help loosen any embedded soil. Next, remove the tough ends of the asparagus. To do this, grab the cut end with one hand and with the other hold the spear about a third of the way down from the tip end. Bend the spear in an arc until it snaps. Discard the end. The spear should break at the point where it ceases to be woody and tough. For very thick spears, this method doesn't work quite as well. Deborah Madison recommends trimming such spears with a knife. Simply cut the spear at the point where it begins to change color. Basically, the goal is to waste as little as possible and avoid serving the tough, woody ends.

Good asparagus can be very thin or very thick. I think it is widely assumed that very skinny spears will be more tender, but this is actually not true as a general rule. It is the interior of the spear that becomes soft and tender with cooking—the skin can actually be quite tough. Very skinny spears have a higher percentage of skin, while fatter spears have lots of the tender flesh. All sizes of asparagus have good uses. The most important thing is to purchase bunches that contain spears that are all similar in size so that they will all cook at the same rate.

The skillet method works best with spears that are in the small to medium-thick range. If the spears are larger than a half inch in diameter, they should be peeled first. Peeling these larger spears will allow them to cook more evenly. The spears Jenny gave me were slightly larger than half an inch, so I peeled them when I prepared my lunch.

To peel an asparagus spear, lay it down on the cutting board parallel to the edge and with the tip pointing away from your working hand. Gently hold the spear with your non-working hand and use a peeler (preferably one that shaves thinly) to run down the length of the spear, starting about a third of the way down from the tip. Roll the spear forward and repeat the stroke with the peeler, continuing to roll and peel until the whole circumference of the spear has been peeled.

To prepare skillet asparagus, choose a skillet that is wide enough to accommodate the full length of the asparagus spears. Melt some butter (about a tablespoon to a tablespoon and a half for every pound of asparagus—pre-trim weight) over moderate heat. When the butter is melted and the foam has subsided, add the asparagus spears (making sure the tips are all pointing the same direction) and gently scoot the pan back and forth on the burner to allow the butter to fully coat the asparagus.

Season with salt, cover and continue to cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the asparagus is as tender as you prefer and still a beautiful green color—anywhere from 7 to 15 minutes. It's OK if it is beginning to turn golden brown in spots. While the asparagus cooks, uncover the pan occasionally to make sure that the heat isn't too high and that the asparagus isn't scorching or sticking (lower the heat as necessary)—occasionally repositioning the spears (moving some from top to bottom and from the outside in towards the center) so that it will all cook evenly.

I have successfully prepared as much as three pounds of asparagus (pre-trim weight) in this manner. Obviously the more you cook, the larger your pan needs to be, but in general, it is not necessary for the asparagus to fit in the pan in a single layer (a depth of two or three spears is fine).

Skillet asparagus is a perfect way to prepare freshly harvested asparagus. Cooked in this way, it makes a wonderful side dish—served as is or embellished with herbs, chopped toasted nuts, finely grated or shaved Parmesan or a bit of lemon or some vinaigrette. It was also fabulous served as I had it—as the centerpiece of a lunch. (If you aren't a fan of scrambled eggs you could top the asparagus with a poached or a fried egg.)

But I have to say, I think the lovely asparagus I received would have been good no matter how I prepared it—such is the beauty of fresh, seasonal produce that has been grown and harvested with care by someone you know. Since not everyone is fortunate enough to have a farmer for a friend and co-worker, getting to know your local growers is the best reason that I know of to become a regular at your local farmers' market.

Getting ready for lunch...


Mary said...

I'm in a rut of quick-steaming our wonderful fresh asparagus. This looks like a great alternative. Thanks!

Shane said...

Came across your blog looking for guidance on roasting and was sold after I saw the Asparagus post !

Paige said...

Shane, Thanks for letting me know you visited...I hope you find lots of useful information on my blog!

Anonymous said...

This is the way I always cook asparagus ... delicious!!