Tender fresh asparagus, with its mild yet distinctive flavour, is one of the great joys of spring, lasting right through into early summer. The green variety is the most common, with stems that can vary in size from fine spears only a few millimetres thick to sticks as sturdy as your thumb.
You will also come across white and purple-tinged asparagus. Usually eaten as an appetizer – served warm with melted butter, vinaigrette or hollandaise sauce – the cooked spears are also a wonderful addition to salads, tarts, layered terrines, risottos, pasta and even scrambled eggs. They make an attractive and delicious topping for canapés, such as bruschetta and crostini, too.
Asparagus is best eaten on the day it is picked, so it is ideal if you can grow your own or buy it locally from somewhere you know it has been freshly picked. Farm shops are often a good source. Imported asparagus can be tough and lacking in flavour. Look for firm green spears with
tightly packed buds, and avoid any that are withered or beginning to brown.
Preparing and Cooking Asparagus
Asparagus spears can be cooked in numerous ways, but the simplest method is to cook them in simmering water until just tender. They can then be eaten with your fingers, accompanied by a dip of melted butter or hollandaise sauce.
Some cooks recommend using an asparagus steamer to cook the spears. This is a tall pan with a basket inside to hold the spears upright, so that when the pan is filled with boiling water, the stalks cook in the water, while the delicate tips steam above it. However, it is just as effective to cook asparagus lying flat in a frying pan containing about 2.5cm/1in of simmering water. Cooking time will depend on the thickness of the spears. If they are thin and delicate, they will become tender in a couple of minutes, while thicker stems may need 6–8 minutes. The best way to test if asparagus is cooked is to lift a spear out with a fish slice and take a bite. It should be tender and juicy, but not soft. To prepare asparagus, rinse lightly under cold running water, then snap off the end of each stem – it should pop and break just where the stem ceases to be woody and becomes tender. Pour about 2.5cm/1in water into a large frying pan and bring to the boil. Arrange the asparagus in the pan in a single layer and cook over a gentle-medium heat until tender. Then carefully lift out of the pan using a fish slice or spatula and pat dry on kitchen paper before serving.
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