Making Asparagus Better

In my new way of eating, unlimited vegetables are a cornerstone of my diet — along with unlimited fruit, modest amounts of protein and a maximum of two tablespoons oil daily.  (No white carbs!) An important part of dieting is maximizing the pleasure of what you eat. That sometimes means extra effort to prepare it very well. Though asparagus can be pricey, they make a welcome between meal treat, a start to a dinner in lieu of a salad or an accompaniment to dinner protein.  I have been enjoying asparagus from distant lands for months as they are usually available from somewhere much of the year. As asparagus is a cool weather crop, April into mid-June is peak asparagus season in the northeast. Local Jersey and Pennsylvania asparagus made an appearance about three weeks ago.

The simple step of peeling asparagus prior to blanching greatly enhances your enjoyment of your asparagus.

Here is a simple step-by-step guide to making asparagus better.

Snap off fibrous end
I prefer thick, substantial asparagus over thin asparagus. It’s not a matter of taste. Thick and thin asparagus taste pretty much the same. It’s the “character” of the asparagus. For me, “meaty” thick asparagus simply have more character.

Thick or thin, asparagus have a tough and fibrous bottom. Begin your asparagus prep by snapping the end off the asparagus and discarding. To do this, hold the asparagus at its bottom and bend. The asparagus will naturally snap at the point where the fibrous part ends. This will likely be about one quarter to one third of the asparagus. Discard the fibrous end.

Next, using a vegetable peeler, gently peel the asparagus beginning about an inch below the very scaly tip portion as pictured above. Peeling is easiest with thick asparagus, but even moderately thin asparagus benefits from peeling. For thinner asparagus, lay the spear flat on the counter as you peel to avoid breaking the stalk. You will periodically need to unclog your peeler as the asparagus peel tends to clog the peeler. Peeling under running water also helps prevent peeler clog. Regardless, rinse peeled asparagus to help remove any clinging peel.

Blanch…and shock.
Blanch asparagus in a generous amount of boiling water. Asparagus should be cooked al dente. Asparagus should not feel raw, but have a pleasant firm “toothiness.” Thick asparagus take four to six minutes to cook. Cooking time depends significantly on the amount of boiling water you have relative to the amount of asparagus. More water means shorter cooking time as the water retains more of its heat when you drop in the asparagus. Thin asparagus cook in as little as about a minute. As I cook my thick asparagus I periodically remove one from the boiling water, cut off a little bit of the end and check for whether they are cooked to my liking.

After blanching, I like to “shock” my asparagus. (This is a common practice in cooking many vegetables.) Shocking involves immersing just cooked asparagus in an ice bath to immediately stop the cooking and set the emerald  green color. If you get really cold water from your sink, you can drain cooked asparagus in a colander and run under lots of cold running water. Ice water does a better job, but is a bit of a bother.

Here are my beautiful asparagus, moved from boiling pot to adjacent ice water with a skimmer. You could also use tongs for this or go from pot to colander to ice bath.

If you are going to serve hot and right away, you can skip “shocking” and go directly from blanching to serving. However, especially if you are cooking a large quantity for guests, by blanching and shocking and then re-heating, you get maximum control and are most likely to serve al dente asparagus. Given my diet, I just eat my asparagus au natural —  topped with salt. Delicious. If I want them hot, I re-heat either in the microwave or by dunking in a pot of boiling water for about a minute until hot. Drain well.

For Easter I made a large batch of asparagus for the eight of us having dinner. A goal of home entertaining is to reduce the number of things you have to worry about once guests have arrived. In my case, for Easter I was taking asparagus to Christina’s mother’s and I wanted to reduce the complexity of what I had to do in her kitchen. I cooked and shocked the asparagus on Saturday. The pre-cooking got the blanching out of the way and ensured my focus on keeping them al dente. I was not cooking the asparagus while trying to pull together other parts of Easter dinner. On Sunday I simply warmed my pre-cooked asparagus in a pan with some butter, salt and pepper.

Check the recipe from At Home for Asparagus Three Ways, an interesting salad showing off the varied aspects of asparagus. Also, check out Mark Bitman’s NY Times blog about asparagus.

Thank you for visiting.

Your Home Entertaining Coach

P.S. As of today I have lost 52 pounds.

Asparagus Recipes from At Home

The following is a recipe from At Home: A Caterer’s Guide to Cooking & Entertaining by Steve Poses. Other asparagus recipes included in the book are Grilled Asparagus, Bacon & Egg Sandwich (P.353), Grilled Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus (P.70), Lemon-Scented Asparagus Risotto (P.337), Shaved Fennel & Asparagus Salad (P.132), Salad of Asparagus, Mushrooms, Goat Cheese & Pinenuts (P.146), Asparagus Soup (P.111), Stir-fried Asparagus & Shitake Mushrooms (P.310)

Asparagus Three Ways
Preparing a versatile vegetable multiple ways—in this case, grilled, blanched and thinly shaved asparagus—makes a beautiful first course presentation. If it’s too time-consuming to make all three, simply eliminate one.

do ahead Ingredients can be prepared up to six hours ahead and stored
in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

2 tablespoons chopped garlic
2 ounces Parmesan, shaved with a vegetable peeler
finely grated zest of 3 lemons
1⁄2 cup lemon juice
2 pounds asparagus
11⁄2 tablespoons olive oil
1⁄2 cup olive oil
1⁄4 cup honey
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3⁄4 teaspoon salt
3⁄4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons heavy cream

1 Gently bend each asparagus spear a few inches from the bottom of the stalk until the end snaps off. Then, using a peeler, gently strip the ends to remove the tough outer layer. Divide asparagus into three equal portions.
2 Shave a third of the asparagus: Hold the tip pointing toward you and use a peeler to strip away thin lengths from each spear, avoiding the tip and working until most of the spear has been shaved. Continue with remaining spears and reserve tips for blanching. Prepare a bowl of ice water and set shavings
in the water.
3 Blanch the second third of the asparagus: Prepare a bowl of ice water. Fill a pot wide enough to accommodate asparagus with salted water and bring to a boil. Add asparagus plus reserved tips and cook for 2 minutes. It should be firm, but not raw. Transfer to a strainer and immediately run asparagus
under cold water. When cooled, drain and cut into thirds. Set aside.
4 Grill the remaining asparagus: Heat a grill pan or backyard grill. Combine garlic and olive oil. Dip and coat asparagus in the mixture. Reserve mixture and transfer coated asparagus to grill. Grill until charred, turning to cook all sides, about 5 minutes. Cut into thirds and set aside.
5 Scrape remaining garlic into a medium bowl. Whisk in honey, mustard,lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Add olive oil and whisk to combine; then add heavy cream and whisk to combine.
6 Drain shaved asparagus well, then blot with a paper towel. Toss shaved asparagus with 1⁄3 cup of dressing until well coated.
7 Mound shaved asparagus in the center of each plate. Arrange blanched and grilled asparagus on top, with tips pointing in. Drizzle each plate with dressing. Finish with Parmesan and more salt and pepper to taste.

serves 6

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