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Asparagus -- where to start? It does not resemble any other food we eat, leaves a stink in our toilet bowls like none other, and often confuses buyers with its fat or thin conundrum. Yet despite all the easy attachable locker room humor that’s readily available, it has been beloved all world over for a very long time now.

Some quick information:

Looks – we eat the shoot of the plant, and its phallic shape is covered at the top with small leaves forming the tip. Pun intended, see above.

The Stink – as your body metabolizes asparagus, it produces methanethiol. This is the source of the stink. Not all people produce the scent and not all can smell it either – more here and here.

Size Matters – what you intend to do with the asparagus will help to determine whether you should choose fat or thin asparagus. Ms. Dare at Cherry Lane Farm (Wed & Sat @ Union Square Greenmarket) taught us that the size of the asparagus is directly correlated to the age of the plant that they spring up from. The fat ones are robust youngsters and the thin ones older, and subsequently more mature or complex tasting. That being said, an asparagus plant will send up a variety of different sizes, with the fatter ones coming from the middle of the underground pod. We like to peel the fat ones for when we will be pureeing and the unpeeled thin ones to eat whole – not a hard or fast rule, just a guiding plan.

Just for clarity’s sake there are folks who will take the exact opposite position on every point in the prior paragraph. Go figure.

We are just entering the prime asparagus season here in the NYC area. The farmers markets are chock full of them, and even many local grocery stores are carrying the New Jersey crop. The local season should run through mid-July, then it is California time again.

For preparation, asparagus is an easy partner to dance with. As a meal accompaniment, it is great boiled, pan-roasted or grilled simply with sea salt, and also pairs well with many flavors such as mushrooms, prosciutto, and parmesan. A comfortable home can also be found in soups or shocked & blanched, then added to frittatas, pastas, salads, and sautés.

For all techniques and recipes, wash the asparagus and either snap off the ends where they naturally break with light pressure, or cut the bottom inch and peel from just below the tip.

Techniques

Boiled: heavily salt boiling water, add asparagus and cook till they turn very bright green (2-5 minutes depending on size), drain and serve or shock in cold water for later use.

Pan-roasted: heat oil over medium in a cast-iron skillet, adding asparagus in a single layer when oil starts to shimmer. Cook slowly - sea salt and pepper mandatory, but feel free to add thyme, nuts, or parsley. A runny poached egg over the top with some parmesan is a great way to go.

Grilled: brush with oil and sea salt, then grill over hot fire turning often to avoid burning. Move to cooler part of the grill if you get too much browning. Ambient heat from the grill should help cook them through. If you are feeling fancy, wrap the grilled asparagus in prosciutto and pass over the flame again to crisp the meat.

Sautés: we like to cook the complementary ingredients then add in blanched and shocked asparagus to warm through before serving. This means cooking mushrooms (Morels if you are lucky), bacon or shrimp till just done, then adding a bit of lubricant (cream, butter, olive oil, stock) and the cooked/cooled asparagus. Warm through and serve.

Recipes

Asparagus Flan

1 bunch asparagus, bottom 2/3 peeled
1 shallot, minced
3 tablespoons butter
Sea salt
1 ½ cups cream – pasteurized instead of ultra-pasteurized if possible
3 eggs


1) Blanch and shock asparagus in salted water till a bit crisp, you will be cooking twice more. Chop into 3’s.
2) Preheat over to 350 degrees and butter some ramekins or a large shallow soufflé type dish.
3) Using a pan big enough to hold the asparagus, sauté minced shallot in 2 tablespoons butter with some sea salt until translucent. Add asparagus and the cream, and then turn down the heat to just below a simmer. Cook for 3-5 minutes just until the cream begins to discolor.
4) Blend the contents of the pan till very smooth and green. Add 1 teaspoon of sea salt and eggs. Pulse just to combine the eggs with the puree.
5) Pour into the ramekins or other dish. The flans will go into another pan with high enough sides to add water halfway up the flans. This water bath will help with even, moist cooking.
6) When the tops are just firm, approx 30 minutes, pull from the over. You know they are done when the flans start to just pull from the sides. If necessary, you can broil the topsides for a brief moment to set the top to allow for an easier time working with the flans post oven. While it will sort of soufflé the flan and puff it up a bit, it will pull much cleaner from the edge.
7) Run the dull knife around the edge of the flan to loosen it before inverting onto a plate. If you use one big dish, feel free to spoon the flan out of the dish onto plates. Not as good looking, but a tasty and functional solution.

We also liked this recipe for an alternate flan from Villeroy & Boch, but did not have time to try it.