For those of us in New England, now is the time for asparagus! Known in these parts as Hadley Grass (since it shoots up from the ground just like the lawn stuff), asparagus has a brief but fleeting growing season that typically lasts from May to late June (although the warm weather brought it to the stands two months ago) when every farm stand, market, and store boasts a local supply of this perennial vegetable.
Who knows how long the growing season will last this year since asparagus showed up so early. We’re getting our daily dose of Vitamin A plus a fair amount of Vitamins B, C, and iron in each bundle of fresh asparagus that’s boiled, grilled, sauteed, and steamed served for dinner. My favorite cooking method is simmering the stalks in a skillet of salted water, the method is quick and reliable. Add a few dots of lemon-thyme butter and the skillet asparagus becomes something of a sensation erupting like pop rocks in your mouth.
Once harvested, asparagus quickly loses its sweet edge so keep an eye out for the freshest looking bundles usually marked by smooth skin, compact tops, and bright green in color. If the tops look at all spread apart and the leaves and branches open and splay out, it means the asparagus was probably harvested too late and can be bitter, grassy, and tough and may even discolor when cooked.
If you can’t get to asparagus soon after its cut, not to worry, there is a little wiggle room when the vegetable is properly refrigerated. To store, tightly wrap the stalks in a plastic bag; or store the bunches upright in a glass canning jar filled with about an inch of water and cover the container and tops with a plastic bag or with plastic wrap; place in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.
To prep asparagus for cooking, pick up individual spears with both hands and snap it. The stalk will naturally break where at the tender point, eliminating an extra step of cutting them with a knife. Save the ends for soup or compost. You can also snap one stalk from the bunch with your hands and using that stalk as a guide, cut the rest with a knife (some say there is less waste this way, but do whatever works best for you). For spears that are thicker than my pinkie finger, I like to peel the ends with a vegetable peeler to ensure the asparagus won’t be tough or woody at the bottom.
p.s. Click here to watch my t.v. cooking debut (just be kind people!) I did earlier this morning on WWLP’s local show, Mass Appeal along with Mary Nelen of Valley Locavore and Lisa Cain of Snack-Girl. We talked about three ways to cook asparagus and I have to say, I walked out of the studio with an adrenaline rush akin to running a short race. Despite my later concerns about having put my makeup together while driving to the studios (oh, dear), this t.v. thing could become a habit.
Skillet Asparagus with Lemon-Thyme Butter
Serves 4 to 6
Prepare the Lemon-Thyme Butter
makes ½ cup
1 stick (1/4 pound) butter (room temperature)
2 tablespoons chopped thyme leaves
1/2 large shallot (about 3 tablespoons), finely diced
zest from ½ lemon
pinch sea salt
Place all the ingredients in a medium sized bowl and mix them together with a wooden spoon. Measure 3 tablespoons of the butter and set aside for the skillet asparagus.
For the remaining butter, transfer to a butter crock or set on a sheet of wax paper, roll into a cylinder, and freeze until firm. Once frozen, the butter can be sliced into thin disks and floated on soups, served with crepes, or tossed with vegetables, grains, pasta, or cooked dried beans.
Prepare the Skillet Asparagus
2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and ends peeled if stalks are thick and woody
freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons lemon-thyme butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
½ lemon cut into thin wheels for a squeeze of juice and garnish
freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Put the asparagus in a large skillet of cold water with the tips going in the same direction. Add a pinch or two of salt to the water and bring to a boil. Add the asparagus then lower heat to a simmer and cook uncovered just until the asparagus is bright green and just tender when pierced with a knife, begin checking for doneness after 3 (it can take anywhere between 3 to 7 minutes depending on the width of asparagus and whether or not the asparagus is peeled, since thinner peeled stalks require less cooking time). Take care not to overcook the asparagus, since it will continue to cook after you remove it from the water and can easily turn to mush. Set the asparagus on a kitchen towel to drain for a minute, then transfer to a large platter.
Serve the Skillet Asparagus with Lemon-Thyme Butter
Dot with the lemon-thyme butter, add a sprinkle of salt, and season with pepper; scatter the chives over the asparagus; lightly squeeze the lemon wheels over the plate. Gently roll the stalk around to coat them, sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the plate, then wipe the edges of the platter and serve.
(This recipe is inspired by Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison)