What's your favorite time of year?
That would be right now, when the local asparagus harvest begins.
Asparagus is available all year round, but in spring it's at its most affordable and delicious. At supermarkets, Mexican and Peruvian give way to asparagus from California. And last week, Long Island's spears began to sprout.
All over the North Fork, farm stands are selling asparagus. Lyle Wells, Long Island's biggest asparagus farmer, has begun harvesting his 60 acres. You can buy a bunch at Wells Homestead (460 Main Rd., Aquebogue, 631-722-3796, wellshomestead.com). Another major grower, Sang Lee, sells its own organic asparagus at 25180 County Road 48, Peconic, 631-734-7001, sangleefarms.com
And North Fork asparagus is making its way west. Wells' is available through FreshDirect. Farm2kitchenLongIsland.com is delivering Sang Lee asparagus; Farmigo.com and OurHarvest.com are selling, respectively, Satur Farms and Wickham's Fruit Farm asparagus at their pickup locations.
As soon as you get asparagus home from the market, snap or cut off the bottom half-inch or so of the spears (keeping the elastic bands in place) and stand them upright in a stable, straight-sided vessel (a plastic storage container works well) that has about a quarter-inch of water in the bottom. Cover the asparagus loosely with the plastic bag it came in and put it on the top shelf of the refrigerator. Asparagus handled this way will keep for up to a week as long as you replenish the water.
A long-standing debate rages over whether thick or thin asparagus has the best flavor. I'm not convinced either has the edge, but I always look for the fattest asparagus because they're harder to overcook. . More important than thick or thin, however, is that all of the asparagus spears are of the same thickness, otherwise they will not cook evenly.
On to cooking: There are many ways to cook asparagus, but here are two basic methods, one for the stove top, one for the oven.
When I want to cook asparagus on top of the stove, I cut the stalks into 2-inch lengths, for the simple reason that round skillets do a poor job of accommodating whole asparagus spears. Put the cut-up asparagus into a lidded skillet that's big enough so the pieces are in one crowded layer, and douse with some olive oil (or butter) and a good amount of salt and pepper. Add about 1 to 2 tablespoons of water (more if the pieces are thick), cover skillet and place over medium-high heat for 3 to 10 minutes. At this point the asparagus spears are essentially steaming. Longer cooking times for thicker spears may require addition of more water. When the asparagus is just tender, remove the lid, turn up the heat and saute the pieces while cooking off the remaining water. When only a film of oil remains on the bottom of the pan, saute the asparagus a few moments longer to pick up a little brown color. Adjust seasonings and serve.
In the oven: Place whole, trimmed asparagus spears in a rectangular baking dish large enough to accommodate them in one layer. Douse with olive oil, salt and pepper and roll the spears around so that they are evenly coated. Bake at 450 degrees for anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness. Adjust seasonings and serve.