Spring is a new beginning. At the produce stand, spring starts with “A” for asparagus, one of the most versatile of vegetables. Asparagus can be served raw, steamed, boiled, sautéed, roasted, stir-fried, deep-fried, puréed for soup or a dip, and baked in custards, tarts and soufflés.
SELECTING Begin with color. Green is the most common, purple the rarest and while white is prized in Europe, it’s the most fibrous. You will also find a variety of thicknesses: Skinny pencil-thin spears are best raw, whole for crudités or cut in salads. Medium stalks (the most common) are sold by the bunch, typically about a pound or 12 to 15 spears. Really big, meaty asparagus stalks, those one-inch thick, can stand alone, with three to four to a serving.
STORING Asparagus will hold up for a few days wrapped in a damp paper or cloth towel in the refrigerator’s humidifier drawer. Or stand the stalks up in the refrigerator in a container with about two inches of water in the bottom.
PREPARING Except for the skinniest asparagus, the woody end of each stalk should be snapped off where they break naturally. If you plan to slant-cut your asparagus in inch-long pieces for a stir-fry, or cook and purée for soup or a dip, there’s no need to peel beforehand. For other dishes, however, all but the top quarter of the spear should be peeled. A regular vegetable peeler will do fine, though there are efficient specialized utensils with a peeling feature built in that grip the stalk. To boil asparagus, simply lay the spears flat in a skillet and cover with water. For steaming, tall, narrow asparagus pots will keep the spears upright, though a steamer basket big enough to hold them lying down in a deep sauté pan or skillet works fine. Thicker stalks should be more thoroughly cooked.
SERVING As with corn, there’s a whole cottage industry of specialized asparagus tools and servers. Porcelain and Majolica plates and platters decorated with asparagus patterns, as well as indented silver asparagus tongs for serving, are the stuff of antiques markets. Books on manners once addressed the propriety of eating asparagus like finger food, but it depends on the preparation. Spears drenched in Hollandaise require a fork. Trendier preparations include puréeing asparagus for a guacamole-like dip or shaving them raw with a vegetable peeler for a refreshing green tangle in a spring or summer salad.
Recipe: Asparagus With Brown Butter