Finally! Spring! Yes! Asparagus! The season is short, perhaps just eight weeks, so grab bundles at farmers markets and co-ops as soon as they appear. We’ve been really patient through this long, cold season. These fresh, bright spears are our reward.
Freshly dug, local asparagus is very delicate. Choose and handle the spears with care. Size is no indicator of quality or flavor. Thick asparagus is simply more mature than the thin variety. Look for bright green or violet-tinged spears with firm stems. Make sure the tips are closed and compact. Avoid stalks that look woody. When the bunch is squeezed, it should squeak.
To store asparagus, trim the bottoms and wrap the cut ends in a damp paper towel. Then place them in a plastic bag for up to three days. Or, even better, place the cut ends in a bowl or vase filled with an inch of water and cover the tops with plastic, then store in the refrigerator.
Cook asparagus as soon as you can. It loses its moisture and sweetness by the hour. It’s best served with simple garnishes because its flavor is distinct and easily overwhelmed. Cooking asparagus is wonderfully easy. It just needs to be relatively quick — boil, pan-roast, grill, steam or bake in parchment.
The best way to serve asparagus is on a white linen napkin so it may be eaten with fingers, according to Emily Post. She suggests providing each diner with a small bowl of melted butter for dunking. I prefer topping the asparagus with any of these garnishes to finger pick (and lick); I’m sure Ms. Post would approve.
• Browned butter: Cook several tablespoons of unsalted butter over low heat until it foams and then begins to smell and look slightly nutty. Serve alongside the asparagus for dipping.
• Drizzle the asparagus with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice, then season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper.
• Sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese over the hot spears.
• Toss a pan of cooked, chopped pancetta bits and its hot fat over the cooked spears.
• Garnish with chopped hard-cooked eggs, drained capers and extra-virgin olive oil.
There’s no flavor in undercooked asparagus and not much joy when it’s overcooked. You want the spears to be soft and juicy. The best way to test for doneness is by taste. (What fun work!)
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.