Asparagus has been a delicious symbol of spring since at least as far back as the Greeks, who called it asparagos — literally, “to spring up.” But however it is spelled, it makes me happy.
Most grocers sell asparagus in a range of sizes, from thin and willowy to thick and stocky. Whatever the size, look for stalks that are firm and smooth from top to bottom, with tight, un-feathery tips. Also check that the grocer stored it properly, because asparagus is quite perishable. It should be stored stem down in ice or a bit of water.
Once you get the asparagus home, arrange the stalks standing on their bottoms in a glass jar filled with 1/2 inch of water, or in a zip-close plastic bag with damp paper towel wrapped around the bottoms of the stems. And try to eat your beautiful asparagus within a day or two of purchase, when it’s still at its peak of freshness.
When it comes to prepping asparagus, I have one rule: If the stem is more than 1/3-inch thick, it must be peeled. Doing so ensures the spear will cook evenly. If you don’t peel it, you’ll overcook the tip before the stem becomes tender. Another reason to lose the peel on a thick stalk is that it’s tough.
If, however, it strikes you as wasteful to lose those peels, you can gather them up (along with the tough bottoms of the stalks, which you also need to discard) and simmer them in chicken or vegetable broth to make a clear and flavorful asparagus soup.
Once prepped, there are any number of delicious ways to cook asparagus. To start, there’s the old tried and true — briefly boiling or steaming the spears, then topping them with butter or vinaigrette. Simple and wonderful. It also can be grilled, broiled or roasted at high heat, all of which amplify its natural sugars. By the way, I think it is asparagus’ natural sweetness that persuades usually veggie-averse children to make an exception.
In this case, though, I’ve moved asparagus from the side to the center of the plate in the form of a one-pot Asian main course. You’ll want to have all the ingredients prepped and lined up on the counter before you start because once you get rolling everything goes into the pan very quickly. The actual cooking time is scarcely 10 minutes.
You begin by pan-searing the raw spears in a hot pan to get a little color on them, adding shiitake mushrooms and shrimp, then flavoring it all with ginger, garlic, chile and oyster sauce. Serve it with a side of brown rice or your favorite whole grain and you’re good to go.