This spring, we had to wait and wait and wait for this asparagus, but that has only added to its appeal. Finally, the farmers markets stalls are stacked with bundles of fat, glossy, stalks promising an elegant meal. My grandmother liked to serve steamed asparagus on white linen napkins, the one food we were allowed to eat with our fingers. We’d pluck up each one to dip in our own tiny cup of melted butter.
Thanks to our organic farmers and the Sustainable Farming Association we’ll be enjoying more asparagus in the coming years. This perennial plant likes our long, cold winters that allow for dormancy so they return with vigor in the spring. Because it does not need to be tilled in each year, asparagus develops deep roots and keeps continuous cover on the land to capture water, prevent runoff and retain fertile soil. After harvest, the asparagus grows tall with beautiful fern-like foliage through the summer.
Grown locally, truly fresh spring asparagus is worth our wait and nothing should overshadow its gentle nature — hollandaise, melted butter and either herbed mayonnaise or vinaigrette spiked with lemon, orange or lime zest all play up its distinctly sweet-grassy flavors. When it comes to size, older cookbooks praise skinny asparagus because it cooks in a flash. But give me the thicker stalks that are sturdier, lusher, more flavorful and less likely to overcook. But whether they are thick or thin, start by snapping or cutting off the woody bottoms before you begin.
There’s no mystery to cooking asparagus; it’s at its best simply blanched in boiling water for a few minutes in a shallow pan or skillet. Place the stalks in the pan so that the tips rest on the side just above the water level; this way the stalks are immersed in the boiling water and the tips steam.
Some folks like their asparagus more crisp than tender, but I prefer them on the tender side. Either way, asparagus is done when you can pierce the thickest part of a spear with a sharp knife without much resistance. Slender stalks cook in about five minutes, thicker stalks need several minutes more. Figure about 1½ to 2 pounds of asparagus for four people. Leftovers are great tangled with pasta and Parmesan cheese, folded in an omelet or stirred into a risotto.
Hurry up; grab those bundles at the market now. We’ve waited long enough, but fresh local asparagus won’t wait for us!
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.