How to Cook Asparagus
Three techniques--boiling, steaming, and microwaving--are compared to determine the best and easiest method of preparing perfectly cooked asparagus.
The Challenge: The classic French technique for cooking asparagus involves breaking off the ends, peeling the spears, tying them into neat bundles with kitchen twine, and then cooking them in boiling salted water until very tender. We wondered if all this pomp and circumstance was necessary; was this method really the best way to cook asparagus.

The Solution: We found steaming to be the superior cooking method for asparagus. Cooking in the microwave shriveled and dried out the asparagus. Blanching made it watery in both texture and flavor. Steaming turned out to be faster than blanching, because you need to heat less water. An added bonus to this approach is that fewer nutrients are lost in the cooking, and you need not bundle the asparagus. You simply remove the entire steaming basket from the pot. We also liked the contrast between the tender peel and juicy flesh of unpeeled asaparagus. Peeled asparagus proved to be less flavorful. Peeling, however, is worthwhile when the asparagus is large and fibrous, or when you want an especially elegant presentation.

For Good Measure: Asparagus stems will snap off in just the right spot if you hold them the right way: hold the asparagus about halfway down the stalk; with the other hand, hold the cut end between the thumb and index finger about an inch or so up the stalk; bend the stalk until it snaps. Discard stem ends or save them for a kettle of asparagus soup.

MASTER RECIPE FOR STEAMED ASPARAGUS

Serves 4

To steam asparagus, all you need is a collapsible steamer basket (even a wire cooling rack will do, as long as it fits into the steaming vessel) and a pot with a lid--a large saute pan, a soup kettle, or a roasting pan with a makeshift tinfoil lid are all possibilities. Just keep the asparagus above the water level and keep the pot covered. You may also use a bamboo steamer and a wok, but add a few minutes to the cooking time.

1 1/2 pounds medium asparagus, rinsed and ends snapped

1. Bring 1 inch water to boil in a soup kettle. Put asparagus in steamer basket then carefully place steamer basket in kettle; cover and steam over medium-high heat until asparagus spears bend slightly when picked up and flesh at cut end yields when squeezed, 4 to 5 minutes for asparagus under 1/2-inch in diameter, 5 to 6 minutes for the jumbo size.
2. Drain and serve asparagus immediately with suggested accompaniments or plunge spears immediately into ice water to stop the cooking process. (You may cover and refrigerate cooled and drained asparagus overnight.)

ALFRED PORTALE’S JUMBO ASPARAGUS SALAD WITH PARMA HAM, PARMESAN, AND LEMON VINAIGRETTE

Serves 4

Even though Portale peels, bundles, and cooks his asparagus in boiling water, I still prefer the steaming method, even for the jumbos. After peeling these super spears, just follow the Master Recipe for Steamed Asparagus. Of course, large or even medium asparagus can be substituted.

Vinaigrette:
3 tablespoons juice and 2 teaspoons zest from 1 medium lemon
1 tablespoon sherry wine vinegar
Salt and ground white pepper
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 shallots, minced
1 teaspoon minced thyme
1 pound jumbo asparagus (about 12 spears), peeled, steamed, and chilled
1 1/2 pounds small new potatoes, boiled until tender and sliced thick
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
12 very thin slices prosciutto de Parma or other cured ham (about 6 ounces)
1 quart mixed baby or regular lettuces, rinsed, dried, and torn into bite-size pieces
1 piece Reggiano parmesan cheese for shaving
2 hard-boiled eggs, whites and yolks separated and pressed through a fine sieve

1. Mix lemon juice, zest, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste in a medium bowl. Whisk in olive oil and set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the shallots, thyme, asparagus, sliced potatoes, and 1 tablespoon chives. Add 1/4 cup vinaigrette; toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Arrange asparagus-potato mixture with the prosciutto alongside it on 4 large serving plates. Dress lettuces with another 1/4 cup vinaigrette, and arrange a portion on each plate. Use a vegetable peeler to shave parmesan curls over each salad. Sprinkle each with sieved egg and remaining chives; serve immediately with remaining dressing passed separately.

GRILLED ASPARAGUS

Serves 4

For really great-tasting asparagus you should grill it over charcoal or wood. A gas grill will do in a pinch but, unfortunately, a broiler doesn’t do the trick.

1 1/2 pounds asparagus, snapped and steamed, but slightly undercooked
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper

1. Heat grill. Toss asparagus in oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper.
2. Grill asparagus until marked, about 2 minutes on each side. Serve hot or at room temperature, unadorned or with a vinaigrette.

THAI-STYLE ASPARAGUS
WITH CHILES, GARLIC, AND BASIL

Serves 4

Adapted from a recipe by Nancie McDermott (author of Real Thai, Chronicle Books, 1992), this Asian-style side dish needs only simple grilled chicken or fish and steamed rice to round out its full flavors.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced serrano or jalapeno chile
1 1/2 pounds asparagus, snapped and steamed, but slightly undercooked
2 tablespoons soy or fish sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce (optional)
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup chopped basil, other basil leaves
3 large chiles of your choice, sliced on the diagonal into thin ovals, or 9 thin strips cut from a red bell pepper

1. Heat a wok or large, deep skillet over high heat. Add oil and swirl to coat surface.
2. Add garlic and minced chile; toss until garlic begins to turn golden, about 15 seconds.
3. Add the asparagus; stir-fry until coated with oil, about 15 seconds.
4. Add soy sauces and 1 tablespoon water; stir-fry until liquid almost evaporates, about 30 seconds.
5. Add sugar; stir-fry another 30 seconds. Add the basil and sliced chiles; stir-fry until basil wilts. Serve hot or at room temperature.

May, 1993
Original article and recipes by Stephanie Lyness

 
SEE ALSO:

Selecting the Best Asparagus