Asparagus: A Tip-Sheet + Recipe for the Treat of the Moment
- tightly closed tips — avoid the ones that look like budding flowers
- smooth stalks — wrinkles, even in asparagus, are a sign of age
- moist bottoms — unless you’re buying them in the farmers’ market where, as in France, the spears are mounded high and you get to buy as many or as a few as you want, it’s best to buy asparagus from markets where they’re stored upright in a tray with a little water
When you get them home, if you’re not going to use them right away, either:
- put them in a tall glass or a vase with an inch or so of water in the bottom, slip a plastic bag over them — think greenhouse — and store them in the fridge; or
- wrap the bottom of the bundle in a damp paper towel, put the bundle in a plastic bag and store it in the fridge’s vegetable bin
Of course, you don’t want to keep them long — I try to use them the day I buy them or the day after.
When you’re ready to cook them, that’s the time to:
- cut off the tough ends — you can either snap off the bottom of the spear (hold the asparagus just below the ‘flowery’ tip with one hand and with the other grab the base, then bend the stalk and snap it at its lowest natural break point) or cut off the bottom inch or two of woody base with a knife; and
- peel the stalks — not everyone peels asparagus, but I think the effort you put into peeling is paid back triply in the pleasure you get from not having to deal with the stringy ‘skin’. (If you’ve got pencil-thin asparagus, there’s no need to peel them.) Use a vegetable peeler (or an asparagus peeler and cutter – a nifty tool made especially for this one job) to carefully and gently remove the outer layer from an inch below the tip to the base.
However you cook asparagus, the test for doneness is the same: you should be able to slip the point of a knife into the thickest part of the stalk. You don’t want them limp and you don’t want them crisp, so you’ve got to stand by and keep an eye on them. Usually I cook the spears in an open skillet of salted boiling water (they take about 4 minutes this way) and, when they’re done, I lift them out onto a kitchen towel and pat them dry. It’s a neutral way to cook them when you’re going to dress them with olive oil, melted butter, hollandaise or a vinaigrette, for instance. You can tie the spears up in bundles and steam them or you can give them a high-heat roast in the oven.
If you want to roast the spears, a really good recipe follows. Of course, if you’ve got asparagus recipes and tips, I’m all ears.
ASPARAGUS WRAPPED IN CRISP PROSCIUTTO
1 pound medium-thick asparagus
1/2 pound prosciutto, medium thinly sliced
(You want to have an equal number of asparagus spears and slices of prosciutto)
Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Cut off the bottom 1 to 1 1/2 inches of the asparagus spears. If the spears are thick, peel them. Wrap a slice of prosciutto around each spear spiraling upward, with the fatty stripe of the ham at the bottom so it creates a barber pole effect up the spear. Line a jelly-roll pan with aluminum foil and smear it lightly with olive oil.
Arrange the wrapped spears on the pan and place it in the oven. Do not disturb for 5 minutes, then shake the pan vigorously to turn the spears. Roast for another 5 minutes and shake vigorously. Continue roasting until the asparagus is very tender and the prosciutto is somewhat crisp, about 15 minutes total. Serve.