“By far the most exciting harvest of May is asparagus,” says Monty Don, one of the best contemporary British garden writers as well as a superb home gardener and one of my personal faves. He goes on to say, “Asparagus is one of those foods that are corrupted by being eaten out of season. The whole point of asparagus is that it has a time and a season.”
You can find these thoughts and more in his book, “From the Garden to the Table: Growing, Cooking, and Eating Your Own Food,” co-written with his wife Sarah.
And the time for asparagus is now in my part of the world. One of the great virtues of asparagus — besides its great taste — is that it’s so easy to prepare. In fact, it’s one of those foods that is best when not buried under rich sauces or lost in complex dishes. If you're looking for some new asparagus ideas, here's a few from me and my shelf of faithful cookbooks.
How to chose and prep: Harold McGee did his asparagus homework and published the definitive word on thick vs thin and how to figure out where to break the ends off the stalks in this article in The New York Times. It finally ended the argument Mark and I have every spring about how and where to snap.
You can cook asparagus any number of different ways, all of them good. It’s more a question of taste than anything else. One pound of asparagus serves two to three people; though I’ve been known to eat the whole pound myself.
Boiled: In her book, “A Year in My Kitchen,” Skye Gyngell says “all vegetables should be cooked in really well salted water — salty as seawater” to keep their color vibrant. (Gyngell is the chef at the cafe at Petersham Nurseries near London, above). My own tip is to not add anything with lemon juice until serving time as it turns any bright green veggies a drab olive green.
Bring the pot of salted water to a full, rolling boil and drop in the asparagus. Bring the water back to boil and cook until tender, says Skye. This is usually only about a minute. Drain and serve immediately with any of the following:
Pretty plain: Drizzle the spears with a bit of olive oil and a sprinkling of chive flowers. The chance to use the pretty lavender flowers is reason enough to make room for chives in your garden.
Herb mayonnaise: Serve the asparagus with a lemon wedge and a good dollop of herb mayonnaise on the side. To about 2/3 cup of homemade mayonnaise (or your favorite store brand), add 2 to 3 Tablespoons of creme fraiche or yogurt, and one Tablespoon each of curly parsley, chives, tarragon and basil.
Citrus butter: Melt a stick of butter (4 ounces) and add the zest and juice of one lemon, lime or orange and pour over cooked asparagus.
Herb butter: Mix 2 to 3 Tablespoons of finely chopped herbs of your choice (my own favorite combination is Lemon Thyme, Lemon Balm and chives) with a squeeze of lemon juice and one stick of butter at room temperature. Shape the mixture into a log about one-inch in diameter. Wrap in tin foil and chill. Slice into discs about 1/4 thick and serve on top of hot asparagus. One woman I know uses a pastry tube and makes pretty little decorative shapes out of the soft butter and then chills them.
Pan steamed: I most often cook asparagus this way, something I learned in the early 1980s from “City Food,” one of Lee Bailey’s many fabulous cookbooks. Melt 1 Tablespoon butter in a deep skillet. Add washed and prepared asparagus and no other water than what is clinging to the stalks. Cover and steam over medium heat for five minutes. Shake pan occasionally. Check to be sure it’s not browning and cook another few minutes to taste.
Roasted: Last summer I discovered Ina Garton’s method of roasting asparagus in her book, “Barefoot Contessa Family Style” and it became an instant favorite. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. For two people, prepare a generous pound of asparagus and spread it in one layer on a sheet pan. Drizzle with 1 Tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast until tender about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and return to the oven another minute until the cheese melts. Divine!
As Monty Don says, “Eating asparagus is good not only for the taste buds but also for the spirit: It makes you feel pampered and indulged.” So go ahead, indulge yourself. Alas, asparagus season won’t last nearly long enough for you to get really spoiled.
Parts of this column appeared in The Capital Times under my byline.