The first culinary sign of spring in much of the U.S. and Europe is asparagus shooting up from the soil. Americans generally cut them off to eat when they reach seven to nine inches in length, to prevent them from getting woody, but Europeans -- especially Germans -- cover them with dirt, to block out the sunlight and produce white asparagus, which are treasured for being more tender and less bitter.
Asparagus season starts in January in California, then moves north about this time to Washington, Michigan, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, where the asparagus will keep popping up until June. There's no asparagus season here on the Gulf Coast, as the vegetable requires ground freezes and a dry season.
Still, there's lots of low-priced asparagus in stores right now, as imports from Peru and Mexico are competing with asparagus harvested in America, and the cost has plummeted from a usual $3.99 per pound to the $1.69 I saw in the H-E-B on Buffalo Speedway. That's not so good for U.S. farmers, as production has dropped from 50,000 acres ten years ago to about 25,000 acres this year, but it's certainly good news for American diners.
No Special Pan Necessary to Cook Asparagus
It's easy to cook asparagus consistently and tenderly; try the following method of power-steaming. It doesn't require the use of a tall cylindrical asparagus pan or specialized steamer, just a simple covered skillet or sauté pan.
Asparagus stalks should be firm and not wrinkly. Asparagus as thin as a pencil won't require peeling. Thicker asparagus tastes just as good, and can be peeled with a super-sharp OXO or Kuhn Rikon vegetable peeler; strip the skin from tip to bottom on four sides, so that the stalk is somewhat squared. It's also a good idea to grab the whole bunch of asparagus and cut off the bottom inch or two to get rid of any woody parts (and simply to get it to fit in the pan.)
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1. Boil ½ cup of water in a separate pan or tea kettle.
2. Place the spears in a skillet or saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Turn the heat on high.
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3. Add the ½ cup of hot water to the asparagus pan, clamp the lid on tight, and cook it on high heat for 5 minutes.
4. After 5 minutes, drain the remaining water, turn the heat to medium, and return the pan to the stove. Add a few fat pats of butter, and roll the spears of asparagus around to slightly sauté them in the melted butter.
5. Move the spears from the pan to a serving dish, and pour any remaining butter over the asparagus. Salt and pepper the asparagus, and serve.
The asparagus will come out a vibrant green--not the olive color of overcooked spears. It won't be limp, and it won't be tough, either. A hollandaise or other white sauce can be poured over the spears, but asparagus cooked this way will taste great with a simple dusting of finely-minced parsley, a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, or a dip into Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise.