The Annals of Asparagus

I make as much an effort as anyone to feign enthusiasm for ramps, but the real excitement of spring and the produce it brings doesn’t begin for me until I see the first spears of asparagus at the farmers market. Asparagus is a bellwether crop, like the late summer tomato, that signals the arrival of the season. More importantly, asparagus is delicious; while a single bunch of ramps usually satisfies my seasonal curiosity, I’ll keep buying asparagus each week by the several pounds (10# this year so far) until that sad week in June when it disappears from the farmers market for another year. Like the year’s last tomatoes or sweet corn, the departure of asparagus fills me with deep sense of loss – as opposed to, say, kohlrabi, which frankly I could take or leave. And while eating winter squash for five days straight feels like some kind of satanic trial, I could shove asparagus down my throat for days and weeks on end without getting sick of it. And since it’s in season for just a few short weeks, that’s more or less what I do.

When the first stalks of asparagus crop up at the market, I rush them home and into a pot of heavily salted water (I’ve read Thomas Keller recommends blanching vegetables in the equivalent of seawater). The hurry is not simply enthusiasm to finally be eating asparagus again: asparagus, like sweet corn, continues to process its sugars after picking, losing sweetness by the hour post-harvest. Asparagus also gets less sweet as the season goes on as sugars in the rhizome that produces the stalks are depleted (for more information see Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking). You can partially combat this by keeping asparagus cold and hydrated. I’ve been keeping my latest haul in the refrigerator in a vase of water.

salmon and blanched asparagus topped with aioli

But better than storing asparagus is to eat it right away. Boil it so briefly that the stalks are still crisp and green and serve it warm with a generous dollop of lemony homemade mayonnaise. Strict locavores might poo-poo my use of lemon, but there are some pairings in this world that were just meant to be, and asparagus and lemon is one of them (asparagus and eggs is another, so with mayo you get a twofer). This is really the only recipe needed for asparagus all year; I would be happy eating it with breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Speaking of breakfast, asparagus is one of the best vegetables for the morning meal. A quick asparagus frittata or scrambled eggs with asparagus are regular, quick breakfasts during the season. If I’m feeling ambitious enough to make pastry, asparagus is also excellent in quiche. I used Cook’s Illustrated’s Thomas Keller-inspired Deep Quiche Lorraine recipe, but added asparagus in place of the onion.

Deep-Dish Asparagus Quiche

Deep-Dish Asparagus Quiche

For the Pastry

  • 8 3/4 oz AP flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 12 Tbsp unsalted butter, cold, cut into cubes
  • 3 Tbsp sour cream
  • 1/4—1/3 cup ice water
  • 1 large egg white, beaten

For the Filling

  • 8 oz bacon, cut into 1/4 inch pieces (I used 4 oz; it would have been better with eight.)
  • 1# asparagus, cut into 1″ pieces
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 8 large eggs plus one egg yolk
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 tsp table salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1/8 tsp ground cayenne
  • 6 oz gruyere, shredded

Pastry: Process flour and salt in food processor to combine. Add butter and pulse until butter is in pea-sized chunks. Mix sour cream and 1/4 cup water in a small bowl. Add half of mixture to flour and pulse to combine. Repeat with remaining sour cream and water. Add additional water as necessary to hydrate flour.

Turn the dough out onto a floured counter and form it into a six-inch diameter disk. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one or up to 24 hours.

Cook’s suggests linking a deep cake pan with a foil sling to facilitate removing the quiche later; I had a lot of luck with a spring-form pan. Whatever vessel you use, roll the dough out into a 15-inch diameter circle and place in the pan. Allow the dough to overhang the pan slightly to anchor the sides. Refrigerate the pan for 30 minutes and then freeze it for 20 minutes.

Heat the oven to 375ºF. Line the dough with parchment and fill with pie weights, beans, or loose change. Bake until edges begin to brown, 30—40 minutes. Remove pie weights and return shell to oven until bottom is browned, 15—20 minutes more. Brush baked crust with egg white.

Filling: Cook bacon in a 12-inch skillet until crisp. Remove bacon bits and cook asparagus in bacon fat until browned. Set aside.

Whisk together cornstarch and 3 tablespoons of milk in a large bowl. Add remaining milk, eggs, yolk, cream, and spices and whisk till smooth.

Sprinkle bacon and asparagus on pastry shell. Slowly pour egg mixture over top. Run a fork through the eggs to evenly distribute the bacon and asparagus and remove air bubbles.

Bake at 350ºF for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, until center is set and registers 170ºF. Allow to cool to room temperature, remove from pan, and cut into wedges to serve.

cross section, or slice, of a deep-dish asparagus quiche

If a quiche with more than a cup of cream strikes you as a little rich, you’ll be relieved to know that asparagus also makes a perfect salad ingredient. Thin stalks can be broken, raw, directly into a salad. Even more fun is to take slightly thicker spears of asparagus and – very carefully if you value your fingertips – running them down a mandoline. The resulting asparagus ribbons are beautiful and have a lot of applications, but one of my favorites is to toss them in a salad. For some contrast, I also roasted a few spears of asparagus in a hot oven until they were deeply caramelized – almost burnt – and nearly disintegrated. It is astounding that the two flavors come from the same vegetable: the roasted asparagus is sweet, smoky, and a very soft, while the asparagus ribbons are crisp with a green, grasslike flavor.

Asparagus Salad

Asparagus Salad

  • 3/4# new potatoes
  • 1/2# asparagus spears, cut into 1″ pieces
  • 1/2# asparagus spears, sliced into ribbons on a mandoline
  • Salad greens
  • Romaine lettuce, in bite sized pieces
  • Arugula
  • Pecorino Romano cheese

images of shaved and roasted asparagus

Balsamic Vinaigrette:

  • 1 small clove of garlic, crushed
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 tsp dijon mustard
  • 1/4 cup (or so) balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 cup olive oil and/or vegetable oil
  • Additional salt and pepper to taste

For the dressing: Mash the garlic with the salt in a medium bowl to form a paste. Add yolk, mustard, and vinegar and whisk to combine. Slowly drizzle in oil, whisking constantly, to form an emulsion. Taste for seasoning and adjust consistency and acidity with additional vinegar.

For the salad: Boil potatoes until nearly done. Cut in half. Toss 1″ pieces of asparagus in oil and roast in 450ºF oven until deeply caramelized, about 30 minutes. Set aside. Toss potato halves in oil and roast, cut side down, until cut side is deep brown.

Toss asparagus ribbons, greens and lettuce with an appropriate amount of the dressing and place in serving bowl. Toss potatoes and roasted asparagus with dressing and arrange over top of the greens. Shave cheese over salad and serve.

Early season asparagus is so sweet and tender that it barely needs to be touched, but as stalks get thicker and starchier more aggressive techniques, like the roasting above or grilling/broiling become useful. If you’re reluctant to introduce delicate spears of asparagus directly to the intense heat of the grill or broiler, you can always wrap them in something — preferably a pork product. I would be letting down the Internet if I didn’t mention that you can wrap asparagus in bacon and grill it. For a subtler pleasure, wrap to-be-grilled asparagus in prosciutto. Not good prosciutto – that should be wrapped raw around spears post-cooking – but lackluster supermarket prosciutto is great for high heat. You don’t need to use any additional fat as the fat in the ham will render out during cooking and coat the asparagus in its porcine glory.

prosciutto-wrapped asparagus

Enough with novel treatments; take a break for some simple asparagus again. A few spears steamed, dipped in cheaters aïoli: jarred mayo, a garlic clove and some lemon juice. Ah, simple pleasures.

steamed asparagus

By the time I was about half way through the recipes for this post (4# of asparagus later, if you’re counting), this post appeared on Serious Eats. (I promise I had the idea of writing this post well before that particular Food Lab was published!) J. Kenji Lopez-Alt covers a lot of the great preparations for asparagus that I  already knew and loved, but also introduced me to a new one: braised asparagus. Following Kenji’s lead, I peeled some of the larger spears I had and sauteed them in a large pat of butter before adding a couple of cubes of frozen chicken stock, covering the pan and letting the asparagus cook well longer than I would if I were interested in preserving green-ness and crispiness.

peeled & braised asparagus with pork, rhubarb sauce, and greens

Braised asparagus is rich and warm, imbued with mature asparagus flavor without the grassy freshness of lighter techniques. A great side dish with simply cooked meat.

There are (hopefully) a few more weeks of asparagus ahead of us, and perhaps the most exciting thing to look forward to in the world of asparagus is the potential combinations with other produce that is just about to come into season. Herbs are already beginning to flourish, radishes must be right around the corner, and spring peas cannot be too far off. The latter combines beautifully with asparagus. Peas are not available at the farmers market yet, so I resorted to using frozen for this risotto, but believe I’ll be making this all over again – and again and again – when peas return to Minnesota’s gardens and farms.

asparagus and pea risotto garnished with chive flowers

Risotto Verde

  • 5 cups chicken stock
  • Olive oil
  • 1# asparagus, cut into 1″ pieces
  • 1 medium onion, chopped medium
  • 2 cups arborio rice

(Confession #2: I combined 1 cup of arborio with 1 cup of generic long grain rice in order to avoid a trip to the store. I am almost too ashamed to type this, but there it is. Don’t judge me too harshly.)

  • 1/2 cup vinho verde

(You can use any white wine, but vinho verde makes this risotto that much more verde.)

  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • 1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
  • 1/4 cup fresh herbs, minced (I used chives and oregano, but I think almost anything would work.)
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • Grated Parmesan cheese

Bring stock to a bare simmer in a medium saucepan with any extra asparagus ends you have lying around. In a large skillet or dutch oven, heat two teaspoons of olive oil over medium high heat. Add asparagus (and peas, if using fresh) and saute until bright green and slightly cooked, about five minutes. Remove vegetables from pan and set aside. Add another 2 teaspoons of oil and add onion. Cook until softened and just beginning to brown. Add rice and cook until grains become mostly white. Add white wine and cook, scraping browned bits off the bottom of the pan, until wine is totally absorbed by the rice. Add about 3 cups of stock (strain out the asparagus ends) and bring to a simmer. Simmer ten or so minutes, stirring occasionally. After stock is mostly absorbed, begin stirring risotto constantly and adding more stock as necessary until the rice is cooked to the point you like it. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add asparagus, peas, and butter and cover. Let sit (off heat or over very low heat) for five to ten minutes. Add herbs and a healthy pile of parmesan cheese and stir. Taste for seasoning. Serve.

There was just ½# of asparagus remaining in my fridge, but another three pounds came from the market today, so there are many more asparagus preparations on my horizon. But springtime is off to a great start!



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8 comments on “The Annals of Asparagus”

  1. Crystal 5 June, 2011 at 8:11 am

    You guys rock! I love all the asparagus creations!

  2. Amy P. 5 June, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Wow, tons of asparagus ideas, thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Lynne 7 June, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Deep Dish Asparagus Quiche — are you *kidding* me with that?!? It looks amazing!! It’s going on our “must make” list for this weekend’s farmers market goodies.

  4. Lindsay 14 June, 2011 at 12:45 am

    These images made me drool.

  5. Samantha 27 June, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    omg, i never knew there were so many yummy things to do with asparagus. must make that quiche!


  6. Brian 1 July, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    For an Asian take on the classic asparagus with mayo, try adding some Maggi (preferably the one made in Europe with the red top) to the mayo. It adds a lot of savoriness and has some acidity to it as well. Maggi + mayo was the choice condiment for asparagus in my house growing up.

  7. Brian 13 July, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    Yep. Mayo + Maggi would work well with green beans. Even just plain Maggi or Maggi + lemon juice works well with green beans. Another great combo is Maggi + lemon juice with broccoli. It’s so versatile!

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