What cooks know about asparagus really differs from what botanists know about it. The latter could name around 300 species of this genus: some are edible, some are ornamental, some grow in moist forests, others in drier African regions but almost all of them look completely unfamiliar to us: they are branched, leafy, thorny, flowering plants.
Cooks, on the other hand, usually deal with the garden asparagus in the form of young spear-like shoots. In olden times this vegetable was used for its purported aphrodisiac properties, today we simply love it for its bitter taste with assertive grassy earthy undertones.
Mild to bitter
Many people compare it with mushrooms, others – with broccoli. Depending on the variety, it can be mild and floral or bitterish and sulfuric. We usually eat asparagus boiled or steamed and served with Hollandaise sauce or brown melted butter aka beurre noisette which means hazelnut butter. It’s a type of warm sauce heavily used in cooking.
Once you try it, you will never be able to forget this warm, tender but active flavour. All you want to do is toss some butter in a pan and start melting it until the butter solids precipitate and begin to brown. This is the key point where you should definitely keep an eye on the process. You want your butter brown not dark.
But let’s get back to celebrating our royal vegetable. One of the easiest ways to cook asparagus is to steam it in the microwave. Take some shoots and cut the lower woody parts with a paring knife. Wash well but don’t dry them afterwards. Place in a single layer on a plate and cover with baking paper, leaving it slightly open from one end for steam to escape. Turn on the microwave and run it for 4-5 minutes. Test doneness with a knife. When ready, season with salt and pepper, pour with brown melted butter and dig in.
In case you don’t have a microwave oven, fill a large pot with water, salt it and bring to a boil. Add asparagus and let it simmer for 5 minutes (more or less, depending on the thickness). Drain and transfer it to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain asparagus again and plate it. But an even better option is to toss it in a preheated pan with some melted butter. Fry it on high heat for a couple of minutes and then place on top a sliced bread smeared with brie or ricotta cheese.