By Nancy Sweet, culinary operations manager, Lincoln Land Community College
To me, fresh, local asparagus marks the true start of spring. Sure, you can get asparagus most all winter long in the grocery stores, but it just doesn’t have the same appeal as those beautiful stalks that you pick up at the farmer’s market in the month of May. It takes asparagus two to three years before it’s ready to harvest, but once it is, you have to move fast – asparagus can grow up to seven inches in one day.
When purchasing asparagus, look for stalks that are bright green and firm with no signs of shriveling. Avoid stalks that look excessively woody or dry. Thick or thin stalks is really just a personal preference, but try buying stalks all about the same size as they will cook more evenly. The tips should be fairly compact and firm, and will often times have a purple-ish hue to them. When storing fresh asparagus, place them loosely in a plastic bag in your refrigerator. If your asparagus starts to look a little wilty, trim the ends and store them upright in a jar with about an inch of water in the refrigerator with a plastic bag over it. To clean and prep asparagus, run it under cool water to remove any dirt. From there, cut off the bottom inch or so before cooking. You can determine the right spot by taking one stalk of asparagus and gently using your hands to “snap” the stalk off at the end where it starts to turn more woody than tender. Once you determine where this is, cut the rest off in the same area if all your asparagus are similar sized.
From here, the possibilities are endless. Steam, blanch, sauté, grill, shave, roast, fry, poach, marinate, pickle – any of these methods work. The key is not to overcook the asparagus. Overcooked asparagus not only loses many of its nutritional qualities, but it becomes mushy, bland and unappealing. Fresh, tender asparagus can be eaten raw or cooked.
An easy, versatile way to prepare asparagus is utilizing a “blanch and shock” technique. This technique can be used on its own, or as the start for many other preparations. In fact, this is one of the first lessons we teach students in the culinary program at Lincoln Land Community College. This technique allows cooks in restaurants to cook vegetables partially before service – locking in both their bright color and nutrients, and then finishing them once they are actually ordered by a guest so that they can have final preparation at the last minute. But this technique is very helpful for the home cook, too, as it is a great way to knock the raw flavor out of certain veggies that are served with dips or to make final preparation when a meal comes together much easier.
To blanch asparagus, fill a pan with enough water so that asparagus are submerged. Bring to a boil and season with a tablespoon or two of salt to help season the asparagus. While the water is coming to a boil, set up your “shocking” station – a bowl large enough to hold the asparagus filled with water and ice. Once the water is boiling, cook the trimmed asparagus for about 2- 3 minutes (less for thin stalks, more for thick stalks). When the asparagus is partially or “par” cooked, it will be just cooked through – still crisp, but not raw – and the best way to test for that it is simply to taste it. Once the asparagus is par cooked, use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer it to your bowl of ice water. Plunging the asparagus into this ice cold water “shocks” it, stopping the cooking process and sealing in the color. Once cooled, thoroughly drain the asparagus. From here, you can serve as crudité for a dip, wrap it with prosciutto for an appetizer, or finish it in an endless amount of ways, such as tossing it with butter for just a couple of minutes in a pan on medium high heat with some salt and pepper.
Sweet and Sour Pickled Asparagus
Yield: 1 jar of asparagus
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
juice of one lemon
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 sprigs dill or tarragon
1 tablespoon pickling spice
1 bay leaf
pinch of red pepper flakes
2 cloves garlic, smashed
Enough asparagus trimmed to fit upright in a pint mason jar
Bring vinegar and water just to a boil. Remove from heat and add sugar and salt and stir until just dissolved. Add in remaining ingredients through garlic. Pour on top of asparagus, screw on lid, and put in refrigerator. Asparagus ready to eat after one hour, but will be better the next day.
Asparagus with Sauce Gribiche
Yield: 2 servings
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil, plus 2 teaspoons
1 tablespoon cornichons (or gherkins), diced
1/2 tablespoon capers
1 small shallot, diced
2 tablespoons fresh herbs such as parsley and/or tarragon, chopped, plus two pinches
1 pound asparagus, trimmed, blanched, and shocked
Boil eggs for 10 minutes. Drain and cool in a bowl of ice water. Peel eggs, putting yolks in a medium sized bowl, and dicing whites and reserving for later use.
Thoroughly smash yolks with a fork. Add Dijon and thoroughly mix in, and then do the same with the vinegar. Continue mixing yolks with a fork and slowly dribble in olive oil, as if to form a sort-of emulsion.
Gently add in the cornichons, capers, egg whites, shallot and parsley. Season as needed with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
Arrange asparagus on center of a two plates in a neat pile with tips all facing same direction. Spoon half of mixture onto middle of each pile of asparagus. Drizzle a little olive oil on asparagus and plate and garnish with some fresh chopped herbs.
Sautéed Asparagus with Balsamic Vinegar and Pine Nuts
Yield: 4 side serving
1 pound asparagus, trimmed, blanched, and shocked
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons pine nuts
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper to season
1/4 cup fresh grated parmesan cheese
In a large sauté pan, heat oil on medium heat. Add shallot and let cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and let cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add pine nuts and toast for about 1 minute, making sure garlic does not burn. Add asparagus and balsamic vinegar and toss, allowing vinegar to reduce. Season with salt and pepper. Serve and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.
Pasta with Asparagus and Lemon Goat Cheese Sauce
Serves 2 dinner portions
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 green onions, sliced thin, with some green slices saved for garnishing
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed, blanched, shocked, and cut into 2 inch pieces
1/2 cup white wine
Juice of one lemon
3/4 cup soft goat cheese
8 ounces cooked penne pasta, reserving 1 cup pasta water
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to season
Heat oil on medium high heat in a large sauté pan on the stove. Add green onions and let cook about 1-2 minutes. Add cherry tomatoes and let cook about 1-2 minutes. Add asparagus and toss everything together with some salt (a large pinch) and pepper (a couple turns of the pepper mill.)
Add wine and let reduce by about half so that the alcohol cooks out. Add lemon juice and goat cheese and toss everything to combine. Season again as before. Let cook 1-2 minutes to allow sauce to come together. Add pasta and let everything cook together for another minute.
If sauce is dry at all, add a little reserved pasta water, a little bit at a time, as needed. Using the water the pasta cooked in helps the sauce adhere better to the noodles as there is starch in the water from the pasta. Serve and sprinkle with remaining green onions.