That messenger of spring, asparagus, pokes its gray-green heads out of cool soil. On blustery days, it pauses and waits, much like we do. On sunny, warm days, it springs forth with a vigor you could almost see, if you could only stand still long enough.
Either way, we are the beneficiaries of this early evidence of garden enthusiasm, which gives us the ability to pick and immediately cook what emerges from the garden – one of the most soul-gratifying rewards of tending a garden.
If, on the other hand, a garden is not a part of your life, have no fear; you can still have the pleasure of choosing fresh asparagus at farmers markets and grocery stores. If this is your route, look for spears that are unwrinkled, with tight buds at the top.
To keep asparagus happy once you get it home, cut a small bit off the bottom ends and plunk the stalks in a jar of water just as you might a bouquet of flowers. Refrigerate if you won’t be having the asparagus for dinner that evening. Eat within a day or two, as the longer you wait, the woodier the stems become.
The thickness or thinness of a stalk is more about preference, rather than taste, although those that eschew the thicker stalks might be interested to hear that they are the first and most vigorous stalks to emerge and only later do the thinner stalks follow.
Sometimes, asparagus is sublime just steamed and then sprinkled with a little sea salt, dusted with some fresh black pepper and dotted with a little butter and drops of fresh lemon juice – delicious! We’ll eat it this way for the first week or two that it emerges. Then, only after we’ve had our fill of bright, fresh and green spring on our plates, will I add cheese, bacon, bread crumbs or other amendments that also are delicious but mute the flavor of the star of the show.
Thin asparagus only needs to have the woody ends snapped off. Bend the stalks toward the bottom and allow them to snap where they will. Thicker asparagus could also benefit from peeling the outer layer. Snap first, and then using a peeler, remove the outer skin on the lower portion of the stalk.
Bring one inch of water to a boil over a strainer or steamer that fits tightly into the bottom pot. The steamer should be wide enough to allow the asparagus to be laid flat without needing to curl it up along the side. Cover the steamer with a lid and steam for 2 to 5 minutes for thin stalks and 6 to 8 minutes for thicker stalks, turning with tongs occasionally. Remove from the steamer and onto a platter. Sprinkle with pinches of sea salt, grind black pepper over it and then dot with a few pats of butter.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lay asparagus on a baking sheet with sides and drizzle lightly with canola oil. Using your hands, roll the spears back and forth to fully coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 20 minutes or until the spears begin to brown and crisp on the surface. Remove from the oven and drizzle with a flavored oil such as toasted sesame oil or a local Fiore oil. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve. Alternatively, drizzle with walnut oil and sprinkle chopped walnuts over the top.
Asparagus and Tomato Gratin
2 tomatoes; sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 bunches asparagus; stems removed and cut into half lengthwise
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (2 tablespoons for drizzling and 1 for the bread crumbs)
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 ounces grated Asiago cheese; about 1 cup grated
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Several grinds fresh black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves removed from the stem
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a 9×13 pan, layer half of the tomatoes and asparagus sprinkling each layer with olive oil, salt and pepper. Repeat with a second layer. In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs, cheese, a pinch of salt, several grinds of black pepper, thyme leaves and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle over the layered tomatoes and asparagus and bake for 35 to 40 minutes.
Serves 6 to 8
Red Rice and Asparagus Salad
1 bunch asparagus, stem ends removed and cut into 1-inch lengths
2 cups red Bhutanese rice
3 cups water
1 cup minced scallions
2 blood oranges
1 tablespoon blood orange olive oil (or unflavored extra virgin olive oil)
Pinch of salt
Several grinds of fresh black pepper
1 cup coarsely chopped almonds
2 tablespoons lemon juice
In a medium-sized stockpot, bring salted water to a boil and add the asparagus. Blanch for 2 to 3 minutes and remove with a strainer. Cool immediately with very cold water. Add the red rice to the pot of boiling water. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 30 to 50 minutes (depending on the brand of rice used). If the rice is tender, but water still remains in the bottom of the pan, drain in a strainer.
Zest the oranges and set the zest aside in a small bowl. Remove the remaining peel from the orange flesh with a sharp knife. With the same sharp knife, encourage the orange segments away from the membrane and set aside for final assembly. Squeeze any juice from the remaining membrane into the small bowl containing the zest. Add the olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice and combine.
When the rice is cooked, transfer to a strainer to cool slightly. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients, including the zest mixture. Taste for salt and pepper and serve immediately or chill.
Serves 6 to 8
Hake with Pork and Potatoes and Asparagus
2 pounds hake, cut into 4 to 6 pieces
11/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 cups sliced onions, about 1 1/2 large onions sliced
1/2 cup white wine
2 pounds red potatoes, cut into 1-inch wedges
Several grinds of fresh black pepper
1 bunch asparagus, ends removed
Sprinkle the pieces of hake with 1 teaspoon of salt at least one hour ahead of cooking.
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat, add bacon and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Add the onions and cook until they begin to soften, about 7 minutes.
Add the white wine, and then the potatoes, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper. Mix everything together and cover. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove the cover and add the pieces of hake and the asparagus to the top of the potato mixture. Cover again and cook for 10 to 15 minutes or until the fish and asparagus are cooked. Check occasionally to see if the fish or asparagus is done and could be transferred to a platter.
Serves 4 to 6
Annie Mahle is the chef aboard the Maine windjammer, Schooner J. & E. Riggin. Her latest cookbook is “Sugar and Salt: A Year at Home and at Sea.” She can be reached at [email protected]