I'm giddy over the local asparagus now at our farmers markets. Grabbing bundles of those green and mauve spears with tightly closed tips, I can trust that spring is finally here. Snap peas, radishes and tender lettuces are just ahead.
Asparagus season is heartbreakingly short, lasting just about six weeks. Those tender stalks must be treated with reverence and care. Asparagus is delicate, and its subtle bitter-sweet, slightly grassy flavor can be easily overwhelmed. Cook it gently and serve the spears on their own, not mixed with too many other ingredients or powerful flavors.
Like our green lawns, this perennial vegetable returns every year. It's a generous plant that, when well-tended, will reappear for at least 20 seasons.
Green asparagus is the most common variety. White asparagus, beloved in Europe, is grown covered in mulch to prevent it from developing the chlorophyll that gives the stalks color. Purple asparagus, with its lovely violet hue, turns green when cooked.
When shopping for local asparagus, look for firm stalks and avoid any with smashed tips that will spoil quickly. Store asparagus as you do cut flowers: Trim off the stem ends and set them upright in a jar of water or wrap the ends in a moist towel and place in the refrigerator. But use it right away, as the distinct flavor fades quickly.
Whether to choose fat or thin asparagus depends more on your preference for its appearance. There is little difference in flavor, as long the stalks are super fresh, though the cooking times will vary slightly. To prepare the stalks, simply snap off the tough bottom ends at the natural bending point.
Avoid cooking asparagus in aluminum pans, as the metal can taint the spears. Ignore the more complicated recipes for cooking asparagus (i.e. standing them upright in a pan or cradling them over boiling water wrapped in a kitchen towel). Just lower the stalks into a shallow skillet of rapidly boiling water. If the spears are too long, let the points rest on the edge where they will steam while the thicker ends become tender. Or roast asparagus quickly in a hot oven, which caramelizes them to be slightly crisp and succulent.
My grandmother served blanched asparagus on a white linen napkin. We'd pick them up one by one to dunk into small crocks of melted butter — a most elegant finger food!
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: Stunning and simple, this tart will look like it took hours of effort. It's easy enough for a weeknight dinner and pretty enough for a party. There are so few ingredients that the flavor of the asparagus shines. Use an all-butter brand of pastry crust to guarantee success. It's great hot from the oven or at room temperature, so this can be easily made ahead. From Beth Dooley.
• 4 oz. cream cheese, softened
• 1/4 c. whole milk Greek-style yogurt
• 2 tsp. grated lemon zest
• 1 tbsp. minced fresh thyme
• Generous pinch coarse salt
• 1 sheet all-butter puff pastry, thawed
• 1/2 lb. asparagus, tough ends trimmed off
• Extra-virgin olive oil
• Freshly ground black pepper
• Thyme sprig for garnish, optional
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a 13-by-18-inch baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, using a fork, smash together the cream cheese, yogurt, lemon zest and thyme. Season with salt to taste.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry to an 11-by-13-inch rectangle, about 1/8 to 1⁄4 inch thick. Transfer the pastry dough to the baking sheet and lightly score a 1/2-inch border around the edges of the pastry.
Spread the cream cheese mixture evenly inside the scored border of the pastry. Line up the spears on top and brush them with the oil. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the spears.
Bake the tart until the pastry is puffed and golden and the asparagus is lightly cooked, about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, garnish with the thyme sprig and allow the tart to cool for about 10 minutes before serving.
Asparagus with Browned Butter and Toasted Pecans
Note: This sophisticated and straightforward dish comes together in minutes. Serve it as a side to grilled fish or chicken or over pasta or polenta for a meal. To toast pecans, place them in a dry skillet over medium heat and toast, occasionally shaking pan, until nuts are fragrant and begin to darken slightly, 3 to 5 minutes. From Beth Dooley.
• 1 1/2 lb. asparagus, tough ends trimmed off
• 4 tbsp. unsalted butter
• 1 small clove garlic, smashed
• 2 tbsp. chopped basil
• 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• 1/4 c. toasted pecans, chopped (see Note)
Put a large, wide skillet on the stove and add about 2 inches of water and a generous pinch of salt. Set over high heat, cover, and bring to a boil. Add the asparagus in one layer and cook until barely done, about 2 minutes. Drain the asparagus and keep warm by wrapping in a clean kitchen towel.
Return the skillet to the stove and set over high heat. Add the butter and swirl in the pan, then add the garlic. Lower the heat. When the butter becomes foamy, turns golden and begins to smell nutty, stir in the basil and lemon juice. Return the asparagus to the pan, season with salt and pepper and shake the pan to coat the asparagus with the butter. Serve with the chopped pecans scattered on top.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.