Asparagus is one of the quintessential harbingers of spring and, as the piles of it in markets can attest, the season is in full swing right now. After you’ve had your fill of this charming, green vegetable served steamed with a pat of butter, branch out with these quick and simple preparations.
Cooking the spears in a hot oven brings out the juicy sweetness of this versatile vegetable. First, break off the tough woody ends at the bottom, then toss the asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees until crisp tender, about 7 to 10 minutes depending on the thickness of the spears. Serve as is or garnish with a shaving of Dry Jack cheese; a sprinkle of pine nuts or roasted almonds; or a drizzle of best-quality balsamic vinegar.
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Enjoy it raw
For the freshest, young, sweet asparagus, try cutting the spears into ribbons. Using a vegetable peeler, shave each spear into long strips or use a sharp knife and cut on the diagonal into thin slices. Raw asparagus is delicious in a salad with lemon vinaigrette (see recipe below); tossed with spring onions, garlic and olive oil and used as a topping for cheese pizza; or mixed with tomatoes, cucumbers and olives for a new spin on Greek salad.
Probably the most traditional and versatile technique for cooking asparagus is steaming. After you’ve trimmed the woody ends, spread the spears in a 10-inch or 12-inch frying pan. Add just enough water to cover a quarter-inch of the asparagus. Put a lid on the pan, turn the heat to high and bring the water to a boil. Watch carefully to be sure water doesn’t boil dry or the asparagus doesn’t get mushy. Cook until the spears are tender with a little bite when pierced with a sharp knife. Plunge into an ice bath to stop the cooking.
Use roasted, grilled or steamed asparagus spears as dippers for spicy peanut sauce, tzatziki, roasted red pepper dip or ranch dressing. Spread hummus onto thin slices of prosciutto then wrap the meat around cooked spears for salty, herbaceous bites.
Cut 1 pound of trimmed asparagus on the diagonal into bite-sized pieces. Steam until just tender. Make a dressing with sesame oil, lemon juice, soy sauce and sugar. Toss the warm asparagus with the dressing and chill. Sprinkle with sesame seeds before serving.
Steam a mixture of 1 cup trimmed asparagus cut in 1-inch pieces, a ½ cup thinly sliced or shredded carrots and 1 cup de-strung, halved sugar snap peas. Mix into cooked quinoa along with sautéed leeks, Parmesan cheese and olive oil or toss with cooked pasta, torn fresh basil leaves and grated Asiago. Add the vegetable mixture to risotto just before it’s done along with some sautéed mushrooms and snipped chives; top with a drizzle of truffle oil. Use whole, cooked asparagus spears as a bed for a fillet of grilled salmon, poached eggs or roasted, boneless chicken breasts. Stir-fry asparagus with strips of red pepper, garlic, ginger and shrimp, add a splash of soy sauce and finish with sesame oil.
How to buy
When shopping for asparagus, look for tips that are firm with tight buds and stems that are freshly cut and not woody. In the past, pencil-thin asparagus was valued, but now fat spears are gaining in popularity. Choose a size depending on what you will be using it for — thinner works well in pasta and rice dishes, while fat is best for grilling and appetizers. Trim the spears by holding the end between your thumb and forefinger and bending it until it breaks. Asparagus comes in green, purple and white varieties. Purple is beautiful raw, but it turns green when cooked. White is created when the plant is buried in dirt, therefore depriving it of light, and is more popular in Europe than the United States. Although fresh asparagus will be around for another month or so, now is the time when tender young spears are in abundance. Lucky for us that there are so many ways to use this versatile vegetable.
Springtime Asparagus Salad
For the salad:
6 or 7 asparagus spears trimmed of woody ends and cut on the diagonal into very thin ribbons, equaling 1 cup of ribbons
1 cup upland cress leaves or baby arugula
½ cup radishes, julienned
¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled
For the dressing:
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons best-quality olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh chives, finely chopped
½ teaspoon lemon zest Salt and pepper to taste
1. Mix all the salad ingredients together in a medium-sized bowl.
2. For the dressing, place lemon juice into a small bowl. Gradually add the olive oil, whisking constantly, until a cohesive dressing forms.
3. Whisk in the chives and zest; add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Toss dressing with salad, coating all pieces.
5. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Purple asparagus. Credit: Brooke Jackson