With fresh asparagus, the higher your income,
the higher up the stalk you cut the tip.
– Bill Rathje
It may be the ultimate vegetable. It is probably the most elegant: fancy and farmy both, at home equally on the tables of the most elegant establishments and in muddy fields.
When I’m asked what I want to eat, I often quip “filet mignon and asparagus with Hollandaise sauce.” I’m not sure why, but it’s true that asparagus is one of the most longed-for of vegetables. And in season and freshly picked is irresistible: grassy and sweet, compared to the sorry offerings that we get in November, shipped from afar.
Now is the time to grab it, and at local u-pick farms you can be greedy and get enough to cook in a dozen different ways. No matter your cooking method, whether boiling, steaming, roasting, grilling or stir-frying, cook it until just barely tender at knifepoint, beyond the crunchy stage but before the stringy/mushy. It doesn’t take long to get to this point, so watch it carefully. Emperor Augustus of Rome ordered executions to be “quicker than you can cook asparagus.”
Most often I sort of poach it in a frying pan. I snap off the woody ends (the asparagus knows where this is, and obligingly breaks in just the right spot), and then lay it in some water, cover the pan and simmer until it gets to that perfect doneness.
The classic method is to peel the skin with a paring knife and tie it in kitchen string and cook it upright in a special tall pot, so that the tips steam and the stalks boil. This seems like too much trouble to me, and I haven’t tried it.
The most common, most streamlined way in which I prepare asparagus is to make a simple vinaigrette, which may be just good olive oil and white wine or red wine vinegar, or maybe lily-gilded with a hit of Dijon or some herbs. This way it’s good hot to accompany other dinner dishes, or room temperature and just sitting around on a buffet table, or cold out of the fridge as a scrumptious snack the next day.
My second-most-common asparagus treatment would have to be a frittata, since they go so beautifully with eggs in any form. And it makes a full meal with a bit of crusty bread and maybe a salad. Other slightly more complex asparagus/egg pairings can be a quiche, timbales (molded custards) or mixed with or tucked into or topped with eggs hard-boiled, soft-cooked, scrambled or fried. And of course there’s that classic eggy Hollandaise or the orange-spiked sauce maltaise.
Asparagus plays well with others, teaming up nicely with bacon, horseradish, mushrooms, goat cheese and other vegetables that share a season with it, like ramps, morels or fresh fava beans. Try a risotto or pasta dish of asparagus and friends. Try cooking spears and wrapping them in prosciutto or smoked salmon.
There are other types of asparagus besides the basic green. Deprived of sunlight are the white ones, worshipped and celebrated in Germany. In fact, in much of Europe it’s more popular than the green kind. There is a purple variety that I haven’t seen nor tried. There is sea asparagus: not an asparagus at all, but salty seacoast samphire plant.
Asparagus was once thought to cure rheumatism, arthritis, toothache and kidney troubles. Said Jonathan Swift: “Ripe ‘sparagrass, Fit for lad or lass, To make their water pass, O, ‘tis pretty picking, With a tender chicken!” Although I suspect that its aphrodisiac reputation is due only to its form, it is full of vitamins A, C and E, along with protein, fiber, folate, calcium, phosphorous and potassium.
So whether in soup or soufflé or just dabbed with a bit of butter and lemon, get some while it’s still spring. If you pick your own, you can get lots for relatively little cash – and custom-picked in the style that you prefer, since some like the skinny spears better, some the fatter (I’m in the latter camp myself).
Greig Farm, three miles north of the village of Red Hook in Dutchess County, has pick-your-own asparagus available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week. Call (845) 758-1234. Also try Kelder’s Farm at 5755 Route 209 in Kerhonkson. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Tuesday. Call (845) 626-7137.