Recipes

Three ways to let fresh asparagus shine

Shaved asparagus salad with ginger, sesame and scallions.
Shaved asparagus salad with ginger, sesame and scallions. The New York Times

How much new information can I offer about asparagus, a vegetable with which I am somewhat obsessed? Or what can I find to say that hasn’t been said before, or that bears repeating?

Shall I tap into my own collection of asparagus nostalgia? Should I remind people how good asparagus is for health and well-being?

I’ll never forget the happy day someone showed me the patch of wild green asparagus popping through the moist earth along a fence line by the irrigation ditch on a California ranch. It was the best introduction to fresh asparagus one could ever wish for. During a few springtime weeks, that patch gave us seven or eight glorious spears a day, sometimes a dozen, in all sizes. All they needed were a couple of minutes in boiling water, and some butter, salt and pepper. I’m told that the patch is still producing.

Though we call it wild asparagus, it would be more accurate to call it feral or invasive, something originally cultivated that has learned to thrive in the wild. Asparagus is not indigenous to the Americas – it was brought over by Europeans – so wherever it is found in the wild here, it has been scattered by the four winds from the seeds in some early settlers’ gardens.

It has the same look, taste and texture as cultivated green asparagus. The green stems and shoots (the part we eat) grow very quickly; any asparagus farmer will tell you a stalk can grow a foot or more in a day. They are in a hurry to do what they are programmed to do, which is to grow masses of fernlike feathery branches and go to seed. They also produce bright red berries, but don’t eat those – they are toxic to humans.

White asparagus can be found at farmers’ markets, and supermarkets now are stocking small white asparagus from Peru, but white asparagus needs longer cooking to become tender. For most people in North America, the quick-cooking green type is what you’ll find consistently, in all sizes – skinny pencil-thin green asparagus, medium-size spears or fat jumbo stalks. For any of these, smooth, shiny skin and tightly closed tips are the ideal.

You may accessorize to your heart’s content, and choose your cooking method. Here are three more options to add to your repertoire: thinly sliced for a raw asparagus salad; steamed and splashed with a pistachio-brown butter sauce; and charred briskly and slathered with a garlicky (preferably green garlic) chimichurri sauce. After a week of eating almost nothing but asparagus while I tested these, I can assure you that each one is a winner.

But sometimes, at least at the beginning of the season, I think the best way is the plainest: simmered in salted water, drained at the right moment, and served warm. Then the only decision that needs to be made is whether to anoint with good butter or good olive oil. In either case, the sweet taste of juicy, fresh-picked asparagus will shine.

Charred Asparagus With Green Garlic Chimichurri

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

3 tablespoons finely chopped green garlic

1 / 2cup finely chopped parsley

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 / 2cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

Salt and pepper

1 pound pencil-thin asparagus, tough ends snapped off

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

4 ounces crumbled feta

Handful of olives

Crushed red pepper, to taste

1. Heat a cast-iron pan or broiler, or prepare a charcoal grill. Make the chimichurri sauce: In a small bowl, stir together chopped green garlic, parsley, oregano, olive oil and 1 / 4cup water. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Spread asparagus on a baking sheet, drizzle very lightly with oil and sprinkle with salt.

3. Transfer asparagus to hot cast-iron pan or to a grill grate that is placed very close to live coals; alternatively if broiling, place pan as close to broiler element as possible. Let asparagus cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until nicely charred, with a few burnt and blistered spots. Asparagus cooked this way tastes best if slightly undercooked and still bright green.

4. Put cooked asparagus on a platter. Stir vinegar into chimichurri and spoon sauce generously over spears. Top with crumbled feta and olives, then sprinkle with crushed red pepper and serve.

Steamed Asparagus With Pistachios and Brown Butter

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

1 1 / 2pounds medium asparagus, tough ends snapped off

Salt and pepper

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons chopped sage, plus 12 whole sage leaves

2 tablespoons lemon juice, plus 1 / 2teaspoon lemon zest

1 / 4cup toasted pistachios, crushed

1. Put a large wide skillet on the stove. Add about 1 inch water, salt it well, cover the skillet, and place over high heat. When water comes to a rapid boil, add asparagus in one layer, cover, and cook for 2 minutes, or just until barely done.

2. Drain asparagus and keep warm loosely wrapped in a kitchen towel.

3. Return skillet to stovetop over high heat. Add butter and swirl pan, then add chopped sage and sage leaves.

4. When butter gets foamy, lightly browned and nutty-smelling, a minute or two, stir in lemon juice and zest and turn the heat to low.

5. Put cooked asparagus back in pan and season with salt and pepper. Shake pan gently to coat with butter sauce. Using tongs, transfer asparagus to a large warmed platter. Spoon remaining sauce over asparagus, sprinkle with pistachios and serve.

Shaved Asparagus Salad With Ginger and Sesame

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon grated ginger

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 jalapeño pepper, seeds removed and finely diced (optional)

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

Salt and pepper

1 1 / 2pounds fat asparagus

Salt and pepper

1 / 2cup slivered scallions

Squeeze of lime juice, to taste

Mint leaves, for garnish

Cilantro sprigs, for garnish

1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1 tablespoon black sesame seeds

1. Make the dressing: In a small bowl, stir together rice vinegar, ginger, garlic and brown sugar. Add jalapeño and sesame oil, then season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Snap or cut off the tough bottoms of each asparagus spear. With a vegetable peeler, peel each tough-skinned spear, starting halfway down from tip and peeling toward bottom end.

3. Cut the asparagus at a long diagonal into very thin slices (not paper thin – about the width of a thinly sliced onion). Place asparagus slices in a wide salad bowl. Season with salt and pepper and toss lightly. Add the ginger dressing and toss to coat well. Taste and adjust. Add scallions and lime juice and toss again.

4. Garnish with mint leaves and cilantro sprigs. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.

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