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Asparagus

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I'm a little ashamed to admit this, but I have been through culinary school and have yet to cook a piece of asparagus! All judgement aside, I need help. Now my mom wants me to make some for a party this weekend.
What am I looking for in a good piece of asparagus? Crisp and tight? I've heard that the bigger they are, the older and woodier they are--is that true?
How do I prep them? If I want to grill them, do I need to blanch them first? I am just planning on serving them with simple sauce, probably a balsamic reduction or the pancetta-garlic sauce posted earlier this month, but I am open to any suggestions.
Please help me out if you can. Thank you!

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  1. My personal preference for asparagus is to have them no thicker than a standard pencil. To prep I typically wrap the individual stalks in proscuitto and roast them in a 400 degree oven. They are delicious that way but the wrapping part can be tedious.

    1. Both thick and thin asparagus are just as good. It is more about personal preference and application. You do need to try to get a consistent size for one dish though.

      Hold one end in each hand and let it snap where it wants. Alot of people just snap one piece and then use that as aguide to cut the others. I don't think that is as reliable though. I find no need to peel the sides. However, for a fancier dinner you might want to.

      My absolutely favorite way to prepare asparagus is simply to toss with a little evoo, s&p and roast in a 400 degree oven for 15-20 minutes. You want it to brown and crisp some. Then toss with a bit of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. It is miles better than steamed. I hope this helps.
      -Becca

      1 Reply
      1. re: Becca Porter

        I concur w/this totally although I roast a bit higher, 450. Comes out perfect every time.

        Sometimes I grate a bit of parmagiana reggiano on top afterwards.

        Laurie

      2. Thick and thin are both good - just depends on how you like them and how you want to cook them. For a make-ahead party dish, I'd suggest Asparagus with Lemon-Mustard Vinaigrette. Blanch asparagus until almost tender to your paring knife. Shock in ice water. Dry, then dress with vinaigrette. Garnish with lots of chopped parsley and/or tarragon.

        Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/17/din...

        1. I roast or steam, or grill. Look for tightly closed tips and if it is thicker than the pencil thin variety I do peel it. It is a bit tedious but I like the texture better and the color. Grilling and roasting bring out a pleasant nutty sweetness. I brush it with olive oil before grilling or roasting and then just dress with a little sea salt and fresh lemon juice.

          1. A discussion of thick and thin

            Link: http://www.latimes.com/features/print...

            1. Thick asparagus is every bit as good as thin. In fact, I try to buy the thickest ones I can because I almost always peel asparagus and peeling a skinny stalk doesn't leave much to work with. If you peel, the asparagus will be tender throughout and you can then get away from the "bending and letting it break naturally" routine, cutting the stalks to the same length - usually about two inches shorter than they're sold - so they make a better presentation.

              Beyond that, look for good tight heads and a smooth surface that indicates the stalks haven't dried out. It's important not to overcook - the Romans around the time of Augustus were big fans of asparagus and had a saying "Velocium quam asparagi coquantur," which translates more or less to "Do it as quick as you'd cook asparagus."

              I like to use a large skillet that will hold the amount I'm cooking in a single layer, then bring a very small amount of salted water to the boil, add the asparagus, cover, and cook for just a few minutes. I haven't had good luck with the so-called "asparagus cookers" that hold the stalks upright in a basket.

              1 Reply
              1. re: FlyFish

                I also use a skillet - but I put the asparagus in, add cold water to just cover, add some salt, and when the water comes to the boil, the asparagus are usually done - I test with a knife - it is quick and the asparagus is evenly cooked. And one less pot to have around.

              2. I've heard that the bigger they are, the older and woodier they are--is that true? Sort of true, usually the bigger the stalk, the older the plant, it may take 2-4 years before a plant can be commercially harvested. But, there is a timing issue, the longer the stalk is allowed to grow, the woodier it becomes. In addition, the length of time since harvest and consumption affects "woodyness". I have a lease that has wild asparagus on it, we harvest it almost every spring. Occasionally I will harvest a stalk that is as big as one's arm, still tender and sweet. Asparagus can grow 12-18" in a couple of days, or it seems that way, stalks I thought were too short on Sunday had developed ferns by Saturday.

                I have grilled them both blanched and unblanched, no big differences other than cooking time, I usually don't blanch.

                I serve/eat steamed/boiled asparagus with flavored mayonaise. If they are from the lease, I boil them (we run dogs on the lease), so if I start the season with "my" asparagus I get in the boil mode and will boil all season until someone asks for steamed.

                I blanch before stir frying.

                Asparagus is often grown in sandy/loamy soil, in those conditions, the "diamonds" on the stalk my trap soil. I used to remove the diamond shaped leaves/flaps, but if I boil, I don't notice many gritty stalks.

                I bend the stalk to break off the end.

                1. Here's one of my favourite recipes, a Spanish-Asian riff on a starter I once had at Le P'tit Plateau, one of Montreal's top BYOs.

                  ASPARAGUS VINAIGRETTE "LE P'TIT PLATEAU"

                  12 ounces fresh green asparagus, preferably thin stalks, trimmed and rinsed
                  1/2 teaspoon soya sauce
                  1 1/2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
                  1 1/2 teaspoons white rice vinegar
                  Sea salt to taste
                  Toasted sesame seed oil
                  Extra virgin olive oil, about 1/4 cup
                  1 egg at room temperature
                  Fresh chives, chopped, or chive blossoms (optional)

                  1. Put the egg in a saucepan and cover it with cold water. Place the pan on a burner, turn the heat to medium-high heat and cook the egg 10 minutes, timing from the moment the water begins to boil. When the 10 minutes are up, run cold water in the pan. When the egg is cool, peel it and set it aside.

                  2. Steam the asparagus until tender. As soon as the spears are done, plunge them in a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and set the colour. Drain well and arrange on two plates.

                  3. Whisk together the soya sauce, sherry vinegar, rice vinegar, salt and 2 or 3 drops sesame oil. Whisk in olive oil until the vinaigrette is balanced but a little tart. If necessary, add more soya sauce, vinegar and sesame oil.

                  4. Separate the egg yolk from the white. Crush the yolk with a fork. Finely chop the white with a knife.

                  5. Spoon the vinaigrette over the asparagus, allowing a little to puddle on either side. Drizzle on a bit of olive oil. Garnish with the egg white and yolk and chopped chives.

                  Two servings

                  1. I think that thicker stalks are sweeter, and more forgiving when cooking them. I never peel them and have never had a woody stalk, ever.

                    I steam them in a frying pan with 1/4 inch of water and the top on and check them every few minutes. When they are still crisp but cooked they are ready. Either they go straight to the plate or i blanch them in ice water to stop the cooking.

                    I also slice on the diagonal and stir fry them with ginger soy and toasted sesame oil.

                    Sliced on the diagonal I add them raw to salads for their nice crunchy flavor.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: biltong

                      I don't blanch mine, but cut on the diagonal after cooking and stir-fried with thinly-sliced beef, shallots, green onions and soy sauce, it's REALLY good.

                    2. r
                      reallyrednails

                      I make asparagus all the time, and did just last night as a matter of fact. Toss w/evoo (or use cooking spray if you want to skip the calories), sprinkle w/some thyme and roast at 350 for about 20 minutes. It's also good at room temp. I serve it with a dill/lemon/mustard/mayo sauce. Fan out the spears on a large plate on top of sliced lemon, and put the dip in a small bowl in the middle--pretty!

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: reallyrednails
                        r
                        reallyrednails

                        I forgot to say that I went to the Stockton Asparagus Festival for the first time this year. I had deep-fried asparagus, which was unbelievably good. The cooking tent for this was huge--and by midafternoon the lines were about an hours' wait long.

                        1. re: reallyrednails

                          Battered, deep fried asparagus (tempura style) is often served at Japanese style restaurants during asparagus season.

                          1. re: Alan408
                            r
                            reallyrednails

                            Ah, but these were different, with parmesan and garlic. Not panko style at all. Yum!

                            1. re: reallyrednails

                              my italian grandmother makes asparagus fritters with bisquick. they are everyone's favorite at the holidays.
                              chop the asparagus into halves or thirds, steam them, and mix with bisquick mix. deep fry and top with salt. they're delicious. it's a lot more work than just baking them, hence the hollidays only idea. but you say you're a chef, so maybe..

                              1. re: reallyrednails
                                b
                                Becca Porter

                                Tempura doesn't use panko. It is so good on vegetables.
                                -Becca

                        2. You're in for a real treat.

                          Some suggestions for picking asparagus: while the tops need to be firm and reasonably tightly packed (if you can slip a dime in, it's old), the real test is to turn the bunch upside down. You want to see that it was very, very recently cut -- if it's brown, or if it's dried out, or if it's got a "scab", it's old and you should try to find better.

                          Some supermarkets put their asparagus cut-side down in water. While that helps keep the asparagus firm for a couple of days, the cut end will still give away the asparagus' age.

                          Thick or thin? I like thick... it's got this meaty crunch to it. More than about an inch thick and it's too much, but I find that it's too easy to overcook thin asparagus.

                          Green or white? White is the European standard, but green has much more of an "asparagus" taste to me and is pretty much all I buy (because it's one-third the price of white, too).

                          To peel or not to peel? I fold the asparagus and let it break where it wants. I then peel the "bottom" ends and use them for soup.

                          I haven't set a piece of raw asparagus in a pot of water in twenty years. I always roast the asparagus, even for soup. I toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, a little garlic and a healthy squeeze of lemon juice and roast at 400 F for about 4 minutes (thin) to 10 minutes (the thickest).

                          I usually serve this with allioli or with aioli (the former is just garlic and olive oil whipped into a usually-unstable emulsion, the latter contains eggs and lemon juice and is pretty much mayonnaise with garlic whipped in).

                          1. It is available at farmers markets in my area (NJ)right now (along with fresh peas and strawberries tra la) and so I get it picked within the day. My favorite way to prepare a large amount for a party is to buy several pounds with stalks about the diameter of my little finger. I break off the ends and drop into salted boiling water for two minutes (no more!). Quickly drain and plunge into an ice water bath. When cool, drain on towels, mound on a large oval or rectangular dish, and chill until ready to serve. Before serving, sprinkle with sea salt or Maldon salt and a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Perfect and simple.

                            Grilling is great too but if you're competing with other food, you risk the danger or overcooking asparagus you're trying to watch other things as well. If you do it in advance, then toss with EVOO and grill for a five minutes, sprinkle with sea salt and chill until ready to serve.

                            1. If you don't want the steamed or stir-fry options, try the stove-top version, too:

                              Just made some last night according to the cook's illustrated recipe for pan-sauteed asparagus and should remember most of it. They recommend the fat asparagus stalks, peeled I think is better. Put a tablespoon each of olive oil and butter in a big enough pan, over medium high heat, lay half the asparagus in one direction, other half on top pointing the opposite way, cook 5-7 minutes covered. Then add salt and pepper pretty generously, turn heat up to high, and flip the stalks over a few times for another 5 minutes or so, uncovered. 2 lbs asparagus, for 3-4 people. But it's really good, so it might not go quite that far.

                              1. I grew up in asparagus country and worked in the fields and picked it every day that it was in season. I didn't eat it for years and you can understand why. Now, after years of fixing it just for my family, I've come to love it! When it is fresh picked, I find that a bit thicker(maybe the size of your ring finger) is better. Look for heads that have no or almost no seed pods on them. The freshly picked thick ones have a much better flavor and are actually more tender if cooked right. No need to peel, just snap as everyone has rec. Roasting in my opinion is not only easy, but really brings out the flavor and you do not have to then deal with any of the watery problems that you have if you steam or boil. Wash really well, dry completely, get out large roasting sheets,drizzle asp. with good evoo, pleanty of kosher salt and pepper,be sure to leave room between spears, and roast at 425 for about 12 min., turning after 7 min. or so. Check for the amount of doneness you like. You can now serve hot or at room temp. These are really good if you shave some great parm over them and put back in oven to melt. Squeeze on a bit of fresh lemon juice, and a bit more evoo. and your good to go.
                                Also great if you serve room temp. roasted asparagus with balsamic, toasted pecans and crumbled blue cheese. Hope you have a great party and your mom enjoys the asparagus!

                                1. The one cooking method that isn't mentioned is the microwave. Snap the asparagus, as mentioned several times in the thread, and rinse w/ cold water. Place on a plate and cover w/ waxed paper and cook for a minute first and then 30 second increments until it's the texture you like... should still have some "snap" to it.

                                  I like to chill it w/ a nice lemony vinagrette and serve it room temp.

                                  1. I prefer the really skinny ones - some people like bigger - the biggest can be very woody indeed.

                                    I was taught to snap asparagus and they would part just where the stalk got tough - you'll be discarding almost half, most times.

                                    You want a batch made up of uniform sizes or the thinnest will be mushy before the thickest are done.

                                    I just boil 'em, keeping a careful watch on doneness. I'm a big fan of leaving vegetables alone to be themselves - my favorite seasoning for asparagus (apart from nothing at all, not even salt - they don't need butter either) is a sprinkle of lemon juice after they're thoroughly drained.

                                    1. i like the skinny ones, when only fat are available, i peel them. either way, i lightly coat or spray them with evoo, sprinkle with some kosher salt, them roast at 450-degrees until i smell them -- about 5 minutes for the skinny ones. that's it. works great in a toaster oven so you don't have to heat up the kitchen in the summer.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: lynn

                                        i do the same, with cracked pepper. it brings out a good flavor you don't obtain through steaming/stir frying. easier than grilling too.

                                        1. re: lynn

                                          i do the same, with some cracked pepper. you can't really mess this up and it really concentrates their flavor in a way you can't get other ways. also easier than grilling.