Archive for Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Asparagus retains al dente flavor in skillet

April 6, 2005


Spring is, of course, an asparagus lover's favorite season. Locally grown and freshly harvested asparagus is available for about a month beginning in April, and at my house we become a one-vegetable family during this period.

And yes, local asparagus is distinctly better than the imported version in the supermarket. The fresher the asparagus, the deeper the flavor and the more tender the stalk. From an asparagus lover's perspective, these are words to live by.

The other asparagus guideline is this: Don't overcook. If you are working with fresh asparagus that has no hint of woodiness in its stalk, you almost can't undercook it. In fact, the mild flavor of a decidedly al dente piece of asparagus has far more charm than the limp, dusky-flavored mush at the other end of the cooking spectrum.

In recent years I have moved steadily away from steaming the asparagus we eat as a side dish to our meals. Instead, I have been quick cooking it in a tablespoon of butter or olive oil in a saute pan or skillet, lightly salted and sometimes with a bit of pressed garlic, a drizzle of lemon juice, a dusting of Parmesan cheese or a few almond slivers.

I prefer this cooking method for three reasons. Obviously, I have more control over the cooking process when the asparagus is in an open skillet on the stove in front of me than I do when it is steaming in a closed container. Second, if done properly, the outsides of the spears can be crispy and the insides still firm. And finally, I really, really like the sort of nutty edge that the flavor develops when cooked in a skillet.

So it was with deep fascination that I began reading an article in a recent issue of Cook's Illustrated titled "Pan-Roasted Asparagus," followed by the rhetorical question: "Is it possible to get great grilled flavor from a simple stovetop recipe?"

As is the habit of Cook's Illustrated's test cooks, this writer gave a detailed description of his failures and successes in trying to develop the perfect stovetop recipe for asparagus. The bottom line was that he arrived at a variation of the approach that I had been using, except that he placed a lid on the skillet to steam the asparagus and produce a more uniformly cooked batch of asparagus. He also browned the asparagus on only one side to avoid overcooking.

The method, neatly laid out in precise instructions, is worth repeating here. I've also included instructions for an orange-almond vinaigrette, which appeared with the story in Cook's Illustrated. The magazine also advises that the spears used in this procedure should be at least a half-inch thick near the base. The cooking time for thinner spears should be reduced.

Pan-Roasted Asparagus

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 pounds thick asparagus spears, ends trimmed

kosher salt and ground black pepper

1/2 (one-half) lemon (optional)

Heat oil and butter in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. When butter has melted, add half the asparagus to the skillet with tips pointed in one direction; add remaining spears with tips pointed in opposite direction. Using tongs, distribute spears in an even layer (spears will not quite fit into a single layer); cover and cook until asparagus is bright green and still crisp, about 5 minutes.

Uncover and increase heat to high; season asparagus with salt and pepper. Cook until spears are tender and well-browned along one side, 5 to 7 minutes, using tongs to occasionally move spears from center of pan to edge of pan to ensure all are browned. Transfer asparagus to serving dish, adjust seasonings with salt and pepper, and, if desired, squeeze lemon half over spears. Serve immediately.

Makes 3 to 4 servings

Warm Orange-Almond Vinaigrette

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until shimmering; add 1/4 cup slivered almonds and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup fresh orange juice and 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme; increase heat to medium-high and simmer until thickened, about 4 minutes. Off heat, stir in 2 tablespoons minced shallot, 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour vinaigrette over asparagus and toss to combine.

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