Stories / Guides and Tips

Spring Brings Asparagus

James Beard

May 08, 2018


Photo: DronG / iStock / Getty Images Plus

In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to the pleasures of springtime asparagus, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

In early spring my market is filled with big, beautiful bunches of asparagus, which must surely be one of the most precious members of the vegetable kingdom. Anyone who has ever grown asparagus in the garden knows the thrill of finding the first tender little green shoots sticking up through the ground. Cutting that first crop, rushing it to the kitchen, and feasting on early, home-grown asparagus makes spring a reality.

Beard on Food: Spring Brings Asparagus

For my money, asparagus is one of the greatest gifts of the Old World to the New, and the developments over the last 30 or 40 years have made it an even more delicious and varied vegetable. Now we have the jumbo or colossal variety, the slim and succulent stalks, and, occasionally, a very thin kind similar to wild asparagus that is extraordinarily good if properly handled. I remember well that when I was a child in Oregon we had practically nothing but the giant white asparagus that was grown in California, primarily for canning, for these huge white spears take much more graciously to processing and have a luscious flavor quite different from fresh asparagus.
When I lived in Europe, I ate a lot of the fresh white asparagus which is grown widely there and sometimes reaches enormous size. The stalks are peeled carefully, and the cooked asparagus is served either hot or cold, just like the green kind. I recall a restaurant in the countryside of France where the owners grew white asparagus. In season you could have a glorious meal of asparagus, cooked to order, followed by a roast baby chicken, tiny new potatoes, cheese, and dessert. Would that we had asparagus farms where we could get such a service.
The green asparagus sold in our markets, especially the medium stalks, has to my mind the greatest charm and flavor. To prepare it, first snap the stalks at the point where they break easily, then scale them with a vegetable peeler or a knife, peeling more deeply as the stalk gets coarser to take off a good deal of the skin. Then, if you wish, tie the asparagus in bunches and cook them in boiling salted water until crisply tender. Some people like to stand the bunches upright in a deep asparagus cooker, so the stalks cook in the water and the delicate tips steam, which is a good way to treat large asparagus, provided it doesn’t get overcooked. I find most people tend to overcook asparagus, and I wish they wouldn’t.
I like mine very crisp to the bite, so I lay them flat in a large aluminum or Teflon-lined skillet in boiling salted water and cook them very quickly until barely tender, removing the stalks with tongs as they are ready—because some stalks are thinner than others, there may be a variation of a minute or two.
You can tell when the stalks are done by pinching them, or by shaking the pan to see if the tips bob back and forth. Depending on the thickness of the stalks, asparagus will take from 7 to 12 minutes to cook. This is something on which you can’t give a definite rule—you must watch carefully and cook until it is done to your taste and bite.

To me, hot asparagus needs no saucing but salt and freshly ground pepper, or this simple butter sauce: blend about 2 teaspoons flour and 1/4 cup water to a smooth paste, stir in 6 tablespoons butter, bit by bit, cook for a few minutes, and season to taste with salt, pepper, or a little lemon juice, and grated nutmeg. You can vary the seasonings as you will. Many people fancy hollandaise on their hot asparagus, but I prefer to have mine cold with good mayonnaise flavored with mustard and lemon juice, a sublime combination of flavors. I’ve known people who put grated Parmesan cheese and a fried egg on top of asparagus, some like it wrapped in thin slices of prosciutto and sprinkled with Parmesan, others like a cream sauce on the spears, while there are some who cover asparagus with a tomato and garlic sauce, which I think absolutely smothers the delicate and distinctive flavor.
There’s a Chinese way of cooking asparagus that is especially good for thin stalks or the very tiny ones you get late in the season. To stir-fry asparagus, cut the stalks in diagonal slices about 2 inches long, put them in a sieve, lower them into rapidly boiling salted water, and cook 3 to 4 minutes, then drain. Melt 1/4 pound butter in a large skillet, season with salt, freshly ground pepper, a little lemon juice, and 1 or 2 tablespoons soy sauce, put in the blanched asparagus, and toss as you would a salad, letting it cook for several minutes, until buttery, tender, and tasty. I’ve had asparagus cut in very small pieces, boiled rapidly, and dressed with melted butter, or hollandaise, or cream sauce, which is known as “asparagus in the style of green peas.” You can also cook the asparagus, dip the spears in egg and bread crumbs, and deep-fry them in hot fat until crisply brown on the outside and deliciously unctuous inside.
With so many ways to prepare and serve fresh asparagus, it is a crime not to take advantage of its seasonal abundance, rather than using frozen or canned asparagus which is another vegetable entirely, with a much stronger taste. I remember, many years ago, a very fashionable restaurant that was the talk of Los Angeles and Hollywood where asparagus was served with a vanilla sauce, for dessert, which goes on to prove how infinitely accommodating this delectable vegetable can be.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.