May is one of my favorite months. The work of vegetable production in May can be oppressive, with never enough time to accomplish everything that must be done, but the month is redeemed by glorious weather and the presence of fresh asparagus.
I had always cooked and enjoyed asparagus, but it’s only when I started to harvest our own about four years ago that my enjoyment turned to obsession. Asparagus is one of those vegetables that is so different when freshly harvested that I’d rather go without for 11 months of the year than settle for the old, pale imitation one finds in the store. There aren’t many vegetables I feel that strongly about, but asparagus is one.
When it’s grown in fertile soil, freshly harvested, and cooked with care, asparagus has such a clean, fresh flavor; the opposite of the store-bought, strong-tasting, slimy asparagus that must be peeled and cooked with great care to make it delicious.
Much of the advice about selecting and prepping asparagus is all wrong, at least for freshly-harvested asparagus. Everyone says to look for the slender, delicate spears. But in my experience, it’s the biggest, fattest, meatiest ones (the kind you never see in the store) that provide the most pleasure. Most people say to partially peel the asparagus, especially on larger spears, but it’s completely unnecessary when the asparagus is fresh. I’ve seen moist cooking (steaming, boiling) times of 4 to 6 minutes, but even the thickest spears for me are ready in 2 minutes. Most say to trim off the woody bottom end, but that’s only necessary with asparagus which has begun to dry out or which was harvested too low to the ground instead of snapped where it’s naturally tender. Some people even buy the extraneous kitchen device known as an asparagus pot, where the spears cook upright in boiling water with only their tips out of the water so they don’t overcook. Good grief. No wonder some people find cooking asparagus intimidating!
I always encourage people to grow it if they can, but it’s a vegetable that requires patience and skill. The plants need about three years to establish themselves during which time they can’t be harvested much at all, but once established they continue to produce for up to 20 years! It’s the ultimate test of commitment, a long-term relationship second only to marriage. And like a marriage, inadequate preparation of the plot reduces chances of success. Soil must be fertile, high in organic matter, and weed-free. Keeping on top of weeds is the hardest part, and also like a marriage, small problems left unaddressed can fester into catastrophic failure!
But all the hard work is worth it once the asparagus is in the kitchen. I trim them all to a uniform 8 to 10 inches (depending on the size of my pan) and roughly sort them by size. I only cook them one way: briefly boiled and sautéed in something savory. There are surely other ways to do it, but sometimes when one way works it’s all you need or want!
Asparagus season is almost over here in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but there’s still a week or so to go if you know someone who grows it or someone who sells it fresh. Maybe you’ll even be inspired to add it to your own garden! Just make sure to do the prep work. You’ll be in it for the long haul!
Sautéed Asparagus with Pancetta
- Begin by trimming the asparagus to uniform lengths which just fit in your pot when laid horizontally. I trim to 8 inches and use a high-sided sauté pan. You could also use a soup pot of some kind, but whatever I use I only fill it with enough water to cover the asparagus by an inch or so.
- In a separate pan I brown a little pancetta, or bacon, or guanciale in a little high-quality olive oil. The amount of meat, of course, is at your discretion. It can be a small flavoring or a major component of the finished dish. It will render fat perfect for sautéeing the asparagus, but if there’s way too much, pour off some of it.
- When the meat has been lightly browned, remove from heat. To cook the asparagus, bring the water to a vigorous boil and salt it like pasta water (1 to 2 tablespoons for every 4 quarts). In my sauté pan I use 2 quarts of water and 1 tablespoon salt. Add the asparagus spears. They can be crowded in the water, but they do need a little room to move around and they should come back to a boil within 30 seconds or so when covered. In my pan I can cook up to 12 thick spears at a time.
- Even my thickest spears cook in 2 minutes. When lifted from the pan, a spear should just slightly bend or droop. Just slightly. They’ll continue cooking while they cool. For me it’s always 2 minutes, but every kitchen is different.
- Remove the asparagus to a cutting board and slice in half to yield 4 inch pieces. This is not necessary, of course, but they fit a little better on little plates this way. Immediately return them to the pan with the browned pancetta and toss quickly (just 15 seconds or so). It’s done off heat so it’s not really a sauté I guess, but it’s the closest description I can think of!
- Even though cooked in salted water, the cooking time is so short that the asparagus will probably need a little more seasoning. I rarely salt any dish just before serving, but in this case I do, using coarse flakes of Maldon Salt.
- Finish with a little drizzle of high-quality olive oil and freshly grated black pepper. Or perhaps go in a different direction with a little hot pepper and/or grated lemon zest.