I like to think that I’m the kind of open-minded cook who loves all ingredients equally. But I’m not.
There are two foods for which I have such a strong affection that we build family celebrations around them. The first is Dungeness crab, which starts the rainy season. The other is asparagus, which ends it.
I’m not talking about just any asparagus but specifically the jumbo spears grown by Zuckerman’s Farm near Stockton. They’re as big around as your thumb, available only a few weeks every year and, when cooked right, have an incomparably delicate flavor and a texture like asparagus mousse.
When they first come in, I buy a pound of them per person, boil them or steam them as the mood strikes, cooking them just until they sag when lifted. Then I dress them very simply with good olive oil, lemon juice and coarse salt.
That will be dinner – well, some bread and butter to sop up the juices, and a glass of white wine (preferably Navarro Vineyard’s rose-scented gewurztraminer, which takes to notoriously difficult asparagus like nothing else I’ve found).
Especially for the first meal of the season, you want to prepare asparagus as simply as possible to best appreciate the sublime flavor and texture.
After that, though, there are no limits.
Lately my favorite way to cook asparagus has been not to cook it at all. Just as you can use a vegetable peeler to make “noodles” from zucchini or cucumbers, if you work very carefully, you can shave asparagus spears into long thin strips that are absolutely delicious raw.
You can dress these very simply with a lemon vinaigrette or use them as the base for something a little more interesting. My current favorite is tossing them with thinly sliced mushrooms, walnuts and wonderfully toasty golden bits of melted Parmesan called frico.