Back in the day asparagus was cooked butt-end down in tall cylindrical pots half-filled with boiling water with the tips poking above the water line where they steamed. Fancy pots came with a draining basket so you could lift the asparagus out of the pot without having them break on you. And break they did because asparagus back then was cooked to within an inch of its life: it was so tender it could accidentally be squished to a purée! Most of us now prefer asparagus cooked to retain a bit of crunch, though there are some occasions when cooked until tender is necessary – when making a risotto or in traditional Italian pasta dishes, for instance. You just cannot eat a crunchy chunk of asparagus in the same mouthful as an ‘al dente’ piece of pasta. The pasta will get munched up first every time and the asparagus and pasta will end up as two disparate ingredients. The same thing with risotto – the rice grains won’t cling sufficiently to something erect, and the dish will lack harmony.
These uses aside, asparagus will taste better, look better and be better for you if it is lightly cooked. And when fabulously fresh, it can be eaten raw and is great sliced in a salad. To cook asparagus in water, bring a saucepan (or a frying pan) of water to the boil, salt the water, drop in the asparagus and cook without a lid for 2-7 minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus and your preferred degree of ‘crunch’. Drain, splash with half a cup of cold water to halt the cooking, then serve, or toss with butter or extra virgin olive oil or other seasonings then serve. Asparagus can be steamed, but it will lose its vibrant green colour more easily with this method, so keep the cooking time short and serve immediately it is ready.
If asparagus is to be served cold, or if you want to cook it ahead for a quick reheating at serving time (in a wok, for instance), drain it then plunge it into a bowl of icy-cold water. As soon as the asparagus is cool, drain, then pat dry with paper towels. If you need to prepare asparagus several hours ahead, wrap it in paper towels, transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to reheat.
Asparagus is great in a stir-fry, remaining crunchy and bright green. Cut spears into short lengths and stir-fry in hot oil for a minute or two. Add ginger and garlic, a pinch of salt and a good grind of black pepper, and serve. For a nutty burst, splash in a little sesame oil, or finish with sesame seeds.
Plump asparagus spears are best for roasting. Trim and put them in a large, shallow ovenproof dish. Spray with olive oil and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bake for 15-25 minutes in a hot oven, until the natural sugars caramelize and the tips turn crunchy.
Asparagus were made to barbecue (cook on a grill). Spray spears lightly with oil, add seasonings such as lemon zest, crushed coriander seeds, flecks of dried chilli etc., and cook for several minutes on a hot plate (griddle), or over the grill, until they brown a little and smell irresistibly gorgeous. To facilitate turning, and to prevent any of them falling through, secure several asparagus in a line with bamboo skewers. See recipe Bruschetta with Asparagus & Prosciutto
One of my favourite ways, using asparagus as a dunker into soft-cooked eggs. See here
Lemon juice, verjuice and flavoured vinegars can add a fresh taste to asparagus, which is particularly welcome if the dish contains cream or other rich ingredients. But be aware that these acids discolour asparagus so dress asparagus salads just before serving.
What should you look for when buying asparagus? Check the tips and ensure they are not dry. Asparagus has high water content and dries out quickly at room temperature, especially in bright lights, but I don’t like the idea of the retailer standing asparagus in water for reasons of hygiene. Look for nice plump spears showing no signs of withering, and cook as soon after purchase as possible. If you need to store asparagus at home, wrap the butt ends in damp paper towels and store in a plastic bag in the fridge.
Is there a good reason to peel asparagus? There’s none that I can think of. It does reveal a paler shade of green, and if that takes your fancy, peel away. Otherwise, just trim the stem ends with a sharp knife or snap them off. Snapping ensures you don’t waste any tender bits – the spears will only break where they are tender. If the ends are shaggy, though, trim them.
About asparagus and wine …
Asparagus and new season’s Sauvignon Blanc comes on to the market around the same time. I reckon they make a striking match, although some wine experts disagree. I think muting the asparagus-ness of asparagus is a silly idea, and I prefer to build on it. Asparagus eats well with a gutsy, capsicum-asparagusy Sauvignon Blanc, a wine with a big whack of flavour. And it can cope with wines that have an herbaceous and cut-grass character, too. Throw in some garlic, which Sauvignon Blanc loves anyway, and you’ve got the chance of striking the perfect match, according to me, that is!
Why pay more for asparagus?
What’s the deal with white, green and purple asparagus? The white are more expensive than the green because they are more laborious to produce. If spears are left to grow in the light, they become green. To keep them white, they need to be blanched (piled up with soil, or covered), during the growth period. In Europe white asparagus reigns supreme, but in New Zealand it’s the green we are in love with. Green asparagus smells more pungent when it is cooked and has a more intense flavour than white. Although I don’t have a breakdown for New Zealand asparagus, European green asparagus contains significantly more nutrients than white. I don’t see the point of purple asparagus as it loses its striking colour on cooking and turns a dull khaki green.
A final point, but a great one …
There is plenty of research to support the inclusion of foods rich in antioxidants in our diet, but it may come as a surprise to learn how highly asparagus rates on the antioxidant chart. Watercress tops the chart, followed by kumara (NZ sweet potato), with asparagus coming in third. The antioxidant levels drop by around 50% in canned asparagus, but canned asparagus still beat many other fresh vegetables. There’s plenty of potassium, good amounts of calcium, and magnesium and phosphorous. It’s low in salt and has a good amount of fibre. Asparagus has practically no fat, but in my book fat makes it taste so much better! Yeah! It loves it – think butter, cream, cheese, and olive oil. Mmmmm.