For a long time, cooking asparagus any way other than the very simplest seemed like gilding the spear to me. Blanching it in boiling water for just a few minutes until just tender and bright green like a spring dream, then eating it as soon as possible — what could be better than this?
My grandmother, who raised Angus cattle in Sunnyside, out east of the mountains past Yakima, made it this way. To be honest, she generally let it cook too long, but it still was excellent. Asparagus was often the crop in the field adjoining her modest spread, which meant that when the season came, the good stuff was literal steps and moments from quiet early-evening field to happy family plate. Under these circumstances, asparagus prepared with the least intervention possible is difficult to best.
At home in Seattle, my dad eventually started grilling it — just asparagus, olive oil, salt and pepper, turned once or twice until roasty-tender — also great, especially with a steak from a cow Grandma had raised. Then, as I started writing about restaurants in the city, I’d eat local asparagus anywhere it appeared on a menu during the short but sweet Washington season — springtime from sometime in April through most of June, weather depending. More elaborate preparations were almost always hugely disappointing. One notable exception: the asparagus with chèvre vinaigrette, green onions and toasted pine nuts served annually at Le Pichet, as well as, back then, at Cafe Presse (R.I.P.).
Local does have meaning here, beyond any loyalty via upbringing. Locally grown asparagus gets to us far more quickly than that from out of state, so it tastes miles better and has a vastly reduced carbon footprint. Buying it also supports local farmers and harvesters — the latter doing very hard work for which our industry pays fairly, unlike the operations of some that’s imported.
If you’re going to eat all the local asparagus you can while you are on this earth — which you should — there’s plenty of time to try it different ways. The first asparagus of the spring is a total pleasure prepared plain, whether it reminds you of your now-dearly departed grandmother or not. Then when I grill some, I think of my dad when laying them crossways to the grate so they don’t fall through — which seems obvious, but then dads do a lot of that kind of important, basic instruction about how not to have things fall through. Now, my mom wraps spears in prosciutto to broil for a predinner snack, which my nephew especially loves. And these days, as the season progresses, I like to dress it up a little bit with a lot of butter in a rich and lemony sauce with spring herbs.
The following recipe lets you choose your own buttery asparagus adventure. What does your taste tell you about what would go well with it, in terms of allium and fresh herbs? Or what you happen to have on hand, on the windowsill or in the garden? (BTW, my friend Jill told me that you can keep green onions growing in a glass of water, and it’s true, fun, thrifty and pretty — just Google it).
The customizable approach here came about by way of messing around with a New York Times recipe for Butter-Braised Asparagus by David Tanis — his involves chives, parsley or chervil, tarragon and optional dill. But the chives may be substituted at will with shallot, green onion, spring onion, ramps or leeks; garlic seems too forceful in this application to me, but hey, do what you feel.
I felt mint might be a friend to asparagus, growing in neighboring fields in Eastern Washington as it does, and it turns out that the fresh, cooling, lightly spicy-sweetness also plays nicely with peppery springtime chives. Dill, as Tanis recommends, wouldn’t be to my taste with asparagus, but try any and all fresh soft herbs that sound good to you. These are just guidelines to get to the asparagus that’ll be your favorite, not mine, with or without a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts.
Buttery Braised Asparagus With Your Perfect Choice of Fresh Herb(s)
Serves 2-4 depending on asparagus appetite. When you get your asparagus home, carry out the first step here, and then stand the stalks upright in a big bowl with water in the bottom of it to cover their butt-ends — this is thought, perhaps apocryphally, to help them rehydrate, but it’s a good way to store them on the countertop for a day or two in any case. If you find yourself lemon-less, pretty much any kind of vinegar is a good substitute, though I’d reduce it to 11/2 tablespoons and perhaps avoid the distinct taste of balsamic. — Bethany Jean Clement
11/2 pounds asparagus
6 tablespoons salted butter
Kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon snipped-to-1/8-inch chives — or use your allium of choice, such as green onion, spring onion, ramps, shallot … (but maybe not our forceful friend garlic)
3 tablespoons chopped mint — or use fresh soft herb(s) of your choice, such as parsley, tarragon, marjoram, chervil or dill (but maybe not, you know, cilantro)
1-plus tablespoons pine nuts, toasted until nicely browned — optional but nice
Rinse your asparagus spears in cool water, and snap off the tough ends — bend them toward the bottom, and they’ll break at the right spot. (You can save the butts for making asparagus soup; see st.news/asparagus for my recipe.)
Put the butter in a large skillet, and turn heat to medium-high. When butter is melted, add asparagus, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add 1/2 cup water, cover and simmer. Check it right at 3 minutes: You want your spears bright green, quite firm but getting tender, and they will keep cooking a little once the heat is off. Shift them around, and cook another minute or two as needed for fatter spears. Move the asparagus to a serving platter, reserving the stuff in the pan.
Turn the heat to high; add your chives/alternate choice; and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid has evaporated and you get a saucy consistency. Add lemon juice and zest, turn off heat and stir in most of your fresh herb(s), saving a bit for garnishing. Taste and add salt and/or pepper, and/or a squeeze of lemon, to your liking. Pour the sauce over the asparagus, sprinkle with extra herb(s) and the pine nuts, if you’ve got them, and enjoy.