I like to think that Im the kind of open-minded cook who loves all ingredients equally. But Im 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.
Im not talking about just any asparagus but specifically the jumbo spears grown by Zuckermans Farm near Stockton. Theyre 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 Vineyards rose-scented gewurztraminer, which takes to notoriously difficult asparagus like nothing else Ive 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.
Shaved asparagus with mushrooms and Parmesan crumble
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 13 minutes
2 ounces Parmesan, grated
Generous 1/3 cup walnut halves
1 pound medium asparagus
1/4 pound white mushrooms
1 tablespoon minced chives
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a silicon sheet or parchment paper. Spoon the grated Parmesan in 1-tablespoon mounds on the sheet and press lightly to flatten. Bake until the cheese is melted and browned, about 7 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool.
When the Parmesan crisps are done, place the walnuts on the baking sheet and bake until toasted and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove and cool.
Shave the asparagus: Lay a stalk flat on the cutting board, holding it at the base. Starting at about where the pale base turns green, use a vegetable peeler to shave the stalk in long, even strips all the way through the tip. When youve gotten about halfway through the stalk, turn it over and start on the other side. When you reach the point that the peeler will no longer shave the spear, rest the spear on top of the flat handle of a wooden spoon to elevate it and take the last two or three strips. You can either discard what remains or save it to make an asparagus soup.
Trim the bottoms of the stems from the mushrooms so they'll sit flat on the work surface. Using a very sharp knife, slice the mushrooms as thin as you can. Combine the asparagus shavings, mushrooms and walnuts in a large mixing bowl, and toss gently.
Place the minced chives in the bottom of a small bowl and cover with the olive oil. Add the lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and whisk until smooth. Pour all but a teaspoon or so of this dressing over the asparagus mixture and toss gently with your hands to lightly coat. Add the rest of the vinaigrette, a little at a time, as necessary. Season with salt to taste.
Arrange the salad on a platter, and crack the Parmesan crisps over the top in large pieces. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 194 calories, 16 g fat (4 g sat.); 9 g protein, 5 g carb.; 2 g fiber; 12 mg chol.; 2 g sugar; 517 mg sodium
Tarragon chicken with asparagus
Prep time: minutes
Cook time: minutes
Heres proof that a one-pan dish can be elegant.
Tarragon is the key flavor, but if youre not a fan of that herb, thyme leaves can be substituted. Because there are so few ingredients, proficient seasoning is key.
By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, special to The Washington Post.
1 pound asparagus spears (tough ends trimmed off), preferably of uniform thickness
1 pound thin-sliced chicken cutlets, preferably 4 large ones
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small onion, halved and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1 cup homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
1/4 teaspoon sugar, or more as needed
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves
Prepare a large bowl of water and ice. Bring a medium sauté pan or skillet of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus; cook until the asparagus is just tender yet still bright green, 3 to 4 minutes for thin spears, up to 8 minutes for thicker spears. Immediately transfer to the ice-water bath. After 5 minutes, drain the spears and cut each on the diagonal into 11/2-inch pieces.
Season the chicken cutlets lightly with salt and pepper. Heat the oil and butter in a large, nonstick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once the pan is hot, add the cutlets; you might have to do this in batches. Cook for about 3 minutes, until browned. Turn cutlets over and cook until browned on the second side and just cooked through. Transfer to a plate.
Reduce heat to medium; add the sliced onion and stir to coat. Cook for about 4 minutes, until slightly softened. Add the broth, mustard and sugar; whisk everything together and bring to a boil, increasing as needed. Taste, and season lightly with salt and pepper.
Transfer the chicken cutlets and asparagus pieces to the pan. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until warmed through. Whisk together wine and cornstarch in a liquid measuring cup, then add to the pan, stirring to form a slightly thickened sauce. Remove pan from the heat; stir in the tarragon. Taste; adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve hot.
Per serving: 240 calories, 29 g protein, 9 g carb., 8 g fat (3 g sat.), 75 mg chol., 140 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 4 g sugar
Roasted sesame asparagus
Prep time: 8 minutes
Cook time: 12 minutes
This recipe is from Vegan Planet (revised and updated edition, Harvard Common Press, $19.95, 592 pages) by Robin Robertson.
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 1/2 to 2 pounds thin asparagus spears, bottoms trimmed and discarded
1 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Gently roast the sesame seeds in a dry sauté pan over low-medium heat. Stir constantly until they just begin to turn tan and pop, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Cut the asparagus diagonally into 2-inch pieces and place in a bowl. Drizzle with the peanut oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss to coat evenly, then arrange on a baking sheet in a single layer.
Roast the asparagus until just tender, 6-8 minutes. Transfer asparagus to a bowl and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Drizzle with sesame oil and toss to coat. Serve immediately.