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A Better Way to Prepare Asparagus

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We're serious about keeping farmers market produce on the menu all year long. Alexandra Stafford of Alexandra Kitchen shows us how to store, prep, and make the most of it, without wasting a scrap.

Today: A simpler way to prepare asparagus, plus a clever dressing to put on all of your salads this season. 

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I have learned not to question recipes that feature water as a main ingredient. I have also learned that when it comes to asparagus, we shouldn't question Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, whose images of fat, vibrant stalks brighten my inbox nearly every day this time of year.

Which is why this shaved asparagus and arugula salad, from Canal House Cooks Every Day, suppressed my instincts to improvise. I did as directed: After finely grating Pecorino Romano cheese into a bowl, I poured boiling water over top—then I slowly whisked in olive oil until the dressing emulsified. 

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Remarkably, it worked. When the boiling water hits the cheese, it creates a milky solution, which, like egg yolks in mayonnaise and mustard in vinaigrette, allows the water and oil to emulsify—at least briefly. The process feels similar to making a classic cacio e pepe, whose creamy sauce is a product of finely grated Pecorino and pasta cooking water. As this dressing sits, it both separates and thickens—but will re-emulsify upon stirring.

  

More surprising than this salad’s water-and-oil dressing, perhaps, is the absence of lemon—so often a nice match for sweet asparagus and spicy arugula. Here, while a squeeze of lemon wouldn’t do any harm, the Pecorino provides an acidity and sharpness that renders citrus unnecessary. I have been using this dressing with shaved asparagus alone or paired with arugula, but as the summer progresses, I anticipate tossing it with thinly sliced fennel, zucchini, summer squash, cauliflower, and broccoli.

This salad makes a lovely side dish on its own, but can easily be turned into a meal: Simply heap it atop an enormous carbohydrate—pizza, flatbread, bruschetta. There’s no science behind that.

Choosing your asparagus at the market:
Look for bright-colored, smooth-skinned, firm stalks with compact heads. Avoid spears with desiccated bottoms.

Storing it:
Asparagus tastes best when prepared shortly after harvesting, but will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator. Snip away any rubber bands or strings holding the bundle together, and if you have the refrigerator space, store stalks upright with their bottoms wrapped in damp paper towels. Otherwise, store stalks in an opened plastic bag or container in your vegetable bin.

Prepping your asparagus:
Asparagus can be served raw, as described here, or steamed, boiled, sautéed, roasted, grilled, or deep fried. If you're harvesting the asparagus from a garden or buying from a farmers market, you may need to soak the spears in cold water to remove any dirt or grit clinging to them. Once clean, cut off the woody ends, and if you’re up for it, peel the skins with a vegetable peeler—removing the tough skins, the Canal House ladies insist, allows the spears to cook evenly.

Most simply, asparagus spears can be plunged in boiling salted water, cooked until tender, then tossed with butter and herbs or roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper at 425º F for 15 to 20 minutes or until just beginning to char.

  

Here are a few more ideas:

  • An absurdly addictive side dish: Render fat from pancetta, then sauté asparagus and leeks until crisp tender. Finish with garlic, lemon, and pine nuts. Serve immediately.
  • Craig Claiborne's pasta con asparagi: Sauté asparagus, then toss with an unlikely (but genius) sequence of ingredients—canned, crushed tomatoes and beaten eggs.
  • A vegetable panzanella: Sauté leeks with asparagus, then toss with toasted bread, pesto, peas, and snow peas. Topped with a couple of poached eggs, this is spring comfort food at its best.
  • Pickled: Preserve the flavor of spring for months using a simply seasoned brine and a quick, refrigerator method.
  • An exceptionally seasonal salad: Blanch spears for two minutes in salted water, then toss with sliced young garlic and grated fresh horseradish. Finish with olive oil, salt, and lemon.
  • A five-ingredient braise: Combine asparagus with water, olive oil, rosemary, bay leaves, and salt, then cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the spears have soaked up all the liquid and are just beginning to brown.

Canal House Shaved Asparagus and Arugula Salad

Serves 4 to 6

1 1/2 cups (4 3/4 ounces) finely grated Pecorino Romano
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
1 pound fat asparagus
8 cups (4 ounces) arugula
Pizza dough or bruschetta for serving

See full recipe (and save it and print it) here. 

Photos by Alexandra Stafford