Spring Into Asparagus
The arrival of asparagus signals that summer’s bounty is close at hand. But asparagus can seem like an old partner, familiar and not very exciting. Pushing the boundaries with the addition of caramelized garlic, onions and almonds transforms an old friend into an exciting, new companion.
Growing up, my mother served only canned asparagus so my earliest association of the plant was with the words “soggy” and “tasteless.” After a visit to Paris during college, I discovered the deliciousness my mother missed.
In pursuit of that wonderful fresh taste, I grew asparagus in our garden. Having been warned that it would take several years for the plant’s roots to become hearty enough to produce edible, thick, sweet stalks, I patiently tended the plants through three seasons.
As a dozen barbed heads poked their way through the crumbly soil, I let them extend 10 inches above ground in their pursuit of the sun before I snipped them off and hurried them into the kitchen.
Finding the best produce
In those days, my preferred preparation of asparagus was decidedly old school: cooked in boiled water with salt in an asparagus steamer I had purchased from a kitchen supply store during a time I bought all manner of infrequently used specialty items, such as a truffle shaver and corn on the cob holders.
Steamed for 10 minutes and plated, the asparagus were a beautiful dark green. Unfortunately they were inedible. The stalks were woody and otherwise flavorless.
While I no longer attempt to grow my own, asparagus appears affordably and frequently in our local farmers markets. Through years of trial and error, I sought out those farmers who grow superior-tasting asparagus. Producing a superior crop appears to require an ideal climate, rainfall and soil chemistry.
At the Pacific Palisades, Calif., farmers market, Mr. Yang, a farmer whose family has 11 children, produces some of the best I have eaten. He grows both varieties, asparagus as fat as my thumb, as well as pencil thin stalks bound tightly with thick rubber bands.
Caramelized to perfection
Each variety has advantages and champions. Personally I like the fat, green asparagus more than the thin ones. To make them easier to eat and to expose their innards to caramelization, I slice them in half. To complement their crisp spring flavor, I sauté them in seasoned olive oil and add sautéed onions, garlic and almond slivers.
The garlic and almonds are cut into the same sliver shape, so the slight differences the eye misses between savory and sweet bits, your palate notices immediately.
Asparagus with Caramelized Shallots, Garlic and Almond Slivers
When buying asparagus, look for well-formed stalks and heads. Avoid ones with dents or stalks that are shriveling, which is a sign of age. Asparagus will keep for a week or longer in the refrigerator if the white ends are trimmed and the stalks are placed in 2 inches of water.
- Pencil thin asparagus can be used whole as can thick asparagus. I prefer to cut thick asparagus in half, the long way, so the inside is as caramelized as the outside, but that is a matter of taste. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and season with sea salt and pepper, about ¼ teaspoon of each.
- Place a paper towel on a large plate or baking sheet.
- Sauté the asparagus in batches, using tongs to turn the stalks for even cooking. Lightly brown and remove, placing the cooked asparagus on the paper towel to drain.
- When you have finished sautéing the asparagus, in the same pan, sauté the shallots, garlic and almonds slivers until lightly browned.
- Return the cooked asparagus to the frying pan and toss with the caramelized shallots, garlic and almonds.
- Taste and adjust seasoning with additional olive oil, sea salt or black pepper. Serve warm.
- Cook the shallots, garlic and almonds separately and place on top of the cooked asparagus when serving.
- For heat, dust the shallots, garlic and almonds with a pinch (or two) of cayenne or ¼ teaspoon pepper flakes.
- Along with the shallots, garlic and almonds, sauté until lightly browned 2 shiitake mushrooms, washed, dried, stems trimmed, sliced to resemble the almond slivers.
- To serve as an entrée or a side dish, cut the asparagus into 2-inch pieces and add 2 cups cooked pasta, seasoned with 1 tablespoon sweet butter. Toss well and dust with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Zester Daily contributor David Latt is a television writer/producer with a passion for food. His new book, “10 Delicious Holiday Recipes” is available from Amazon. In addition to writing about food for his own site, Men Who Like to Cook, he has contributed to Mark Bittman’s New York Times food blog, Bitten, One for the Table and Traveling Mom. He continues to develop for television but recently has taken his passion for food on the road and is now a contributor to Peter Greenberg’s travel site and the New York Daily News online.
Photo: Asparagus with caramelized shallots, garlic and almond slivers. Credit: David Latt