I like to think that I’m the kind of open-minded cook who loves all ingredients equally. But I’m not.
There are two foods for which I have such a strong affection that we build family celebrations around them. The first is Dungeness crab, which starts the rainy season. The other is asparagus, which ends it.
I’m not talking about just any asparagus but specifically the jumbo spears grown by Zuckerman’s Farm up by Stockton, Calif. They’re as big around as your thumb, available only a few weeks every year and, when cooked right, have an incomparably delicate flavor and a texture like asparagus mousse.
When they first come in, I buy a pound of them per person, boil them or steam them as the mood strikes, being careful to push them just beyond the edge of culinary propriety – cooking them just until they sag when lifted. Then I dress them very simply with good olive oil, lemon juice and coarse salt.
That will be dinner – well, some bread and butter to sop up the juices, and a glass of white wine (preferably Navarro Vineyard’s rose-scented Gewurztraminer, which takes to notoriously difficult asparagus like nothing else I’ve found).
Especially for the first meal of the season, you want to prepare asparagus as simply as possible to best appreciate the sublime flavor and texture.
After that, though, there are no limits.
How else do I prepare asparagus? It really depends on what size of spears I have.
For the really thick jumbos, I stay pretty close to the essentials (one hint: prepare them by cutting off the bases where they turn from pale to green, then peel from the tip down, starting with light pressure and finishing hard; this is how you avoid tough fibers and still get the most meat).
If I’ve got wiry thin spears, I’ll use them as an ingredient – stir them into risotto or pasta, maybe make a frittata with them. You don’t need to peel these, just cut off the bases.
The spears that fall in the middle – those about as big around as your little finger – will work with either of those preparations.
But I like to glaze these. Peel them as you would the thick spears (but very lightly!). Lay them flat in a skillet and add just enough water to barely cover the bottom of the pan and a healthy knob of butter or glug of olive oil.
Cook, covered, over medium heat until the spears are almost tender (you’ll feel it when you poke them with a small, sharp knife). Remove the lid, raise the heat to high and cook until the liquid has reduced to an intensely asparagus-flavored sauce.
Serve this just as it is, or top it with a sunny-side-up egg for dinner.
Lately my favorite way to cook asparagus has been not to cook it at all. Just as you can use a vegetable peeler to make “noodles” from zucchini or cucumbers, if you work very carefully, you can shave asparagus spears into long thin strips that are absolutely delicious raw.
You can dress these very simply with a lemon vinaigrette or use them as the base for something a little more interesting. My current favorite is tossing them with thinly sliced mushrooms, walnuts and those wonderfully toasty golden bits of melted Parmesan called frico.
Still, I know I’m nowhere close to running out of asparagus preparations. One of my cooking heroes, Alain Passard, has a famous preparation in which he stands the spears up in a tall, narrow pan and cooks them very slowly for 21/2 hours, constantly basting the tips with butter.
Someday when I have the time – or a sous-chef I can persecute – I will try that one too.
SHAVED ASPARAGUS WITH MUSHROOMS AND PARMESAN CRUMBLE
40 minutes. Serves 4
2 ounces Parmesan, grated
Generous 1/3 cup walnut halves
1 pound medium asparagus
1/4 pound white mushrooms
1 tablespoon minced chives
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a silicon sheet or parchment paper. Spoon the grated Parmesan in 1-tablespoon mounds on the sheet and press lightly to flatten. Bake until the cheese is melted and browned, about 7 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool.
When the Parmesan crisps are done, place the walnuts on the baking sheet and bake until toasted and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove and cool.
Shave the asparagus: Lay a stalk flat on the cutting board, holding it at the base. Starting at about where the pale base turns green, use a vegetable peeler to shave the stalk in long, even strips all the way through the tip. When you’ve gotten about halfway through the stalk, turn it over and start on the other side. When you reach the point that the peeler will no longer shave the spear, rest the spear on top of the flat handle of a wooden spoon to elevate it and take the last two or three strips. You can either discard what remains or save it to make an asparagus soup.
Trim the bottoms of the stems from the mushrooms so they’ll sit flat on the work surface. Using a very sharp knife, slice the mushrooms as thin as you can.
Combine the asparagus shavings, mushrooms and walnuts in a large mixing bowl, and toss gently.
Place the minced chives in the bottom of a small bowl and cover with the olive oil. Add the lemon juice and one-half teaspoon salt, and whisk until smooth. Pour all but a teaspoon or so of this dressing over the asparagus mixture and toss gently with your hands to lightly coat. Add the rest of the vinaigrette, a little at a time, as necessary. Season with salt to taste.
Arrange the salad on a platter, and crack the Parmesan crisps over the top in large pieces. Serve immediately.