It's that time of year again. I was working in the Washington Youth Garden on Tuesday and Chris, the garden manager, urged me to try some of the asparagus that is beginning to poke through the soil.
There's hardly anything better than snapping off an asparagus spear right out of the garden and eating it raw on the spot. It's like biting into a tree-ripened green apple--fresh and crisp. The asparagus flavor is there, but also a tenderness you don't get from the store-bought version, something like fresh peas.
Anyway, you probably would never think of eating asparagus raw--unless it was picked 10 seconds ago. The asparagus you find in the store is probably a week old at least, most likely shipped from California. Some is much older: You can tell from the way it begins to wrinkle and the color starts to fade. At that point, best to take a pass.
Asparagus is one of the edibles to shake off winter and emerge from the spring thaw. Our farmer friend Mike has rows and rows of it planted at his place in Prince George's County, south of Washington. I would suspect he'll be harvesting and marketing his soon. The beauty of asparagus is, it's a perennial plant. Once the root stock is planted in the ground and established--around year three--it comes back year after year, producing for 15 years or more. You have to love that if you're a vegetable gardener.
There are many ways to cook asparagus. The classic method is to tie a bunch in a bundle and cook it in simmering water. The latest fad is to roast or grill asparagus. I'm not a big fan. The flavor of asparagus is so singular, so ephemeral and full of expectation, I think cooking it too aggressively ruins it. Asparagus wants to be treated more gently, with more respect.
I prefer to poach mine gently in salted water in an iron skillet. I don't bother tying the stalks together. I just slice off the bottom two inches or so--where the bright green color begins to fade--then slide them into the skillet just as the water is coming to a boil. I like this method because I can monitor the cooking process closely. I use a metal trussing skewer to test for doneness, aiming for just of bit of resistance to the tooth, or al dente. If I think we're close, I'll remove one of the stalks with my spring-loaded tongs and cut off a bit to taste. Since the stalks are of various thickness, I can begin removing the thinner ones first, dropping them into a cold water bath in the sink.
Once the asparagus is cooked and chilled, I lay them all out on paper towels and pat them dry.
You can dress the asparagus any way you like. Or use it as an ingredient in another dish, such as an egg casserole or frittata. One of my favorite treatments came from the original Silver Palette cookbook years ago--asparagus with blueberry vinaigrette. Of course, you bought the Silver Palate brand of blueberry vinegar back when it was readily available in stores. I just did a Google search and see there is a Silver Palate website with products for sale, but the only vinegars listed are raspberry and Balsamic. Too bad.
I tossed the finished asparagus gently with some honey-mustard vinaigrette I had in the refrigerator. The arugula and other brassica greens are going to seed in the garden. They're making great sprays of yellow and white flowers, perfect for garnishing a platter of asparagus.