Recipes for Buckwheat Crepes With Asparagus, Ham and Gruyère; Butter-Braised Asparagus; and Wok-Fried Asparagus With Walnuts.
If you believe, as many do, that asparagus should be celebrated as a sure sign of spring and is best eaten only during its relatively short season, you know something about the joy of anticipation.
Farmers and gardeners who grow asparagus certainly understand this concept. It can take up to three years for an asparagus plant to yield more than a few stalks.
Once established, though, an asparagus bed will continue to produce for 20 years or more. When the tips start poking through the ground, you’ll need to be vigilant. Expect to be picking every day for several weeks. A 3-inch shoot can rapidly grow a foot long while your back is turned.
Cooks and diners worldwide have long been happy to await the year’s new crop, knowing that their patience will be rewarded. In Europe, restaurants advertise springtime asparagus just the way soft shell crabs are peddled here during their fleeting season. They’re back! Get ’em while they last.
Now that Peruvian asparagus is available in the supermarket all winter long, it is tempting to buy it year-round. But where’s the fun in that? It gives no more pleasure than eating so-so subpar green beans flown in from another hemisphere. They may be “fresh,” but vegetables suffer from jet lag, too. They come off the plane tired and somewhat worse for wear. Why not wait?
Does this mean people on the East Coast should shun the early asparagus from Mexico and California? If you’ve suffered through a long, cold winter, it’s no sin to indulge. But realize that freshly picked asparagus from New Jersey or Michigan will taste that much better.
The fact is, truly fresh asparagus doesn’t stay truly fresh for very long. Some advocate standing the spears upright in an inch of water in the fridge, but, like good summer corn, it’s best to buy it right off the truck.
Signs of freshness include smooth, glossy spears; tightly closed tips; and bottom ends that look freshly cut. This means the asparagus is sweet. Don’t settle for less.
Now, do you want your asparagus pencil thin, medium or jumbo? It’s really a matter of personal preference. Skinny asparagus, cut in 2-inch lengths, is best sautéed or stir-fried. Larger thick spears, left whole, are the ones to steam, simmer, roast or grill.
Peeling asparagus may seem highfalutin’, but fatter stalks need it, for cooking evenly and for a better, silkier texture. For medium or thin asparagus, it’s not necessary. (White asparagus always needs peeling, though.) Cut off the tough bottom ends or snap them off. But if you snap, hold your hands toward the very bottom end of the stalk or you risk discarding too much. (A stalk will snap in the middle too if you’re not careful.)
The main thing, no matter the size or the cooking method, is to make sure the spears are properly cooked. Keep them bright green and firm. Aim for just done. It’s better to veer toward underdone; residual heat will cause them to continue cooking when they are removed from the pot. (As with pasta, it’s a disappointing shame when overcooked, even by a minute.)
I offer three dishes here, but for the first asparagus of the year, keep it simple with this elemental recipe: Simmer spears in well-salted water and bring a steaming platterful to the table for a celebratory first course. Offer nice extra-virgin olive oil, melted butter, vinaigrette or homemade mayonnaise for dipping.
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Tuck a napkin under your chin and eat them with your fingers.
BUCKWHEAT CREPES WITH ASPARAGUS, HAM AND GRUYÈRE
Makes 6 servings
1 cup buckwheat flour
½ cup all-purpose flour
2½ cups buttermilk
½ teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons butter, plus more for pan
1½ pounds medium asparagus, trimmed and bottom parts peeled, if desired
6 cooked ham slices
2 cups grated Gruyère or Comté cheese
1. Make the batter: Whisk together flours, eggs, buttermilk and salt until well combined. Put the batter in the fridge for at least two hours or, preferably, overnight.
2. Heat a crepe pan or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, about 8 inches in diameter, over medium-high heat. Use a piece of paper towel to rub a little butter in the pan, then quickly ladle in about ¼ cup of batter. Swirl the pan to spread the batter all the way to the perimeter. Let the crepe brown on one side for a minute or so, until crisp. Flip it over with a spatula (or carefully with your fingers) and cook one minute more. Don’t worry about browning the second side. Adjust heat if crepe browns too quickly; the pan needn’t be scorching hot. Remove from heat if crepe is cooking too quickly.
3. Remove the crepe from the pan and set it aside while you continue to make five more. Stack crepes on top of each other as they are finished. (Crepes may be made in advance.)
4. Bring a medium pot of generously salted water to a boil. Cook the asparagus for two minutes, or just until it is firm-tender, then drain and spread on a clean kitchen towel to cool.
5. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Fill the crepes by laying each one topside down, place a slice of ham on top, sprinkle generously with cheese, and lay three asparagus spears on top, off to one side. Fold over to make a half-moon.
6. Put the filled crepes in one layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle with a little melted butter, then bake until they are crisp and the cheese is melted, about five to seven minutes. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings
1 ½ pounds large or medium asparagus
6 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon snipped chives
1 tablespoon roughly chopped parsley or chervil
1 teaspoon chopped tarragon, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon chopped dill, plus more for garnish (optional)
1. Snap off and discard the tough bottoms of the asparagus spears. If using large, thick asparagus, peel the lower ends with a vegetable peeler.
2. Put butter in a wide skillet over medium-high heat. Add asparagus in one layer and season with salt and pepper. Add ½ cup water, cover, and bring to a simmer. Cook until the asparagus is firm-tender, about three minutes. Take care not to overcook them; they should still be bright green. (They will continue to cook a bit once the heat is off.) Remove the asparagus from the pan and place on a serving platter.
3. Turn heat to high and simmer briskly until most of the liquid has evaporated, a minute or so. Add lemon juice and zest to the buttery juices. Turn off heat and stir in chives, parsley, tarragon and dill, if using. Check seasoning. Spoon the sauce over the asparagus, garnish with a few herb leaves, and serve.
WOK-FRIED ASPARAGUS WITH WALNUTS
Makes 4 servings
1 ½ pounds asparagus, pencil-size or medium
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns, or use black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon five-spice powder
1 teaspoon grated garlic
2 teaspoons grated ginger
1 tablespoon palm sugar or dark brown sugar
1 to 2 bird’s-eye chilies, thinly sliced, or use serrano or Fresno chilies
2 teaspoons soy sauce
½ cup toasted walnut halves
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
3 scallions, slivered
Cilantro sprigs, for garnish
1. Snap off and discard bottoms of asparagus, then cut into 2-inch pieces. (Halve thicker pieces lengthwise first.)
2. Set a wok over high heat and add vegetable oil. When oil is hot, add asparagus and season lightly with salt. Stir-fry for a minute or so, then add Sichuan pepper, five-spice powder, garlic, ginger, sugar, chilies, soy sauce and walnuts. Continue cooking over high heat for one to two minutes, tossing to coat well, until asparagus is cooked but still firm and bright green. (It will continue to cook a bit off the heat.)
3. Transfer asparagus to a serving platter and drizzle with sesame oil. Sprinkle scallions over the top and garnish with cilantro sprigs.