Because of the mild weather this winter, asparagus season arrived earlier than usual. I bought my first local bunch at the end of April. Did you know that as the days get warmer, asparagus spears can grow up to 10 inches in 24 hours, requiring farmers to harvest them daily? At first, I was alarmed by this information. Standing at the edge of an asparagus field on the North Fork, I thought I could actually hear new shoots pushing up through the earth, creating a low rumbling sound. But then I realized I was sensing the approach of an eastbound Jitney on Route 25.
"Get ahold of yourself," my husband said to me as he dropped $5 into the cash box at a self-serve roadside stand. He was right. Asparagus may grow quickly, but the season is short, lasting only until the end of June. Instead of imagining a field of asparagus growing out of control and taking over Long Island, I should be thinking up recipes.
Here are a few worry-free ways I plan to prepare asparagus in the coming weeks:
SHAVED AND EATEN RAW Shave very fresh asparagus into thin ribbons with a vegetable peeler, toss with lemon juice and olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper and maybe a little grated Parmesan cheese.
STEAMED Place in a steamer basket and set over boiling water. Steam until just cooked through (3 to 7 minutes depending on thickness), and toss with melted butter, sea salt and some finely chopped fresh mint and/or grainy mustard.
BLANCHED AND STIR-FRIED Briefly (1 to 2 minutes) boil 1/2-inch lengths of asparagus, then drain. Stir-fry some ginger and scallions in a little vegetable oil in a wok or large skillet, add the asparagus and some Sriracha or chili garlic sauce, and stir-fry until the asparagus begin to brown a little. Toss in some sesame seeds and serve.
When shopping for asparagus, size isn't everything. Thinner asparagus spears are not necessarily younger or more tender than thick spears. They are thinner because they are offshoots of thicker stalks. Asparagus of all diameters have their culinary uses.
Thicker asparagus spears contain lots of moisture, making them good candidates for grilling, because they stay juicy even when cooked over a very hot flame. Thicker stalks also are better in shaved asparagus salads, because, well, try shaving a thin stalk of asparagus with a vegetable peeler and you will understand.
Thinner stalks, cut into short lengths and steamed or blanched, are better than thick ones for tossing with other delicate spring salad ingredients such as arugula and green peas.
Asparagus will keep for several days in the refrigerator. Some people suggest standing the bunch upright, cut ends submerged in an inch of water, but in my experience asparagus keeps just fine in the crisper drawer in a plastic bag.
ASPARAGUS, AVOCADO AND ARUGULA TACOS
My all-time favorite method for cooking asparagus spears is roasting. It concentrates their flavor and caramelizes their tips. Recently, I made some easy vegetarian tacos by roasting asparagus and placing it inside steamed corn tortillas. (I grilled some spicy fresh chorizo as an accompaniment for the meat eaters at my table.)
1 bunch asparagus (about 1 pound) ends trimmed
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon chipotle chili in adobo, finely chopped
1/2 small clove garlic, finely chopped
4 cups baby arugula, washed and dried
1 ripe avocado, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
16 small corn tortillas
1 cup crumbled goat cheese or mild feta
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with heavy-duty foil. Toss asparagus, 1 tablespoon oil, salt and pepper on sheet. Roast until asparagus spears are soft and ends are crisp, 20 to 30 minutes.
2. Whisk together remaining 2 tablespoons oil, salt and pepper to taste, lemon juice, chili and garlic. Combine arugula and avocado in a medium bowl and toss with dressing.
3. Wrap tortillas in a clean, damp kitchen towel and microwave until soft and hot, 1 to 2 minutes, depending on the strength of your microwave. Put 2 tortillas, one on top of the other, on a work surface, keeping remaining tortillas wrapped and warm as you work. Spoon on some arugula and avocado salad, top with some warm asparagus, sprinkle with cheese, and fold in half. Repeat with the remaining tacos. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.