Please stop overcooking asparagus – The Boston Globe

Asparagus MimosaSheryl Julian

I can get asparagus from the fridge to the table in five minutes. I put a skillet of salted water on a high burner to come to a boil. Meanwhile, I snap off the ends of the asparagus stalks. The spears go into the boiling water, they cook for two minutes, and then they go into very cold water. In a Dijon mustard jar that I save when there’s only a teaspoon or so left along the sides, I shake vinegar and oil to make a quick dressing.

What I don’t do: Use one of those tall asparagus cookers. They’re silly. Just lay the spears down in a skillet. Also, cook the asparagus just until they’re done, not longer. They’re bright green and such a nice sign of spring. Let their color shine. And don’t bother peeling the spears, as many cooks will tell you to. I don’t because I’m not running a restaurant. Same reasoning, plus waistline issues, for why I don’t make Hollandaise.

I see drab, olive green asparagus in prepared food cases all the time. I see it added to all kinds of salads. It should be striking golf-course green and it shouldn’t compete with other vegetables. As an ingredient, I always want spears to be snappy and fresh. Set them on a nice plate so they fall any which way, like Pick-Up Sticks. Add a few spoons of vinaigrette, and if you want to get fancy, press a hard-cooked egg through a sieve and scatter the yellow and white bits on the spears to make a mimosa garnish (like the flower).

In the kitchen, think through a recipe to see where you can save time so things to move quickly. Bringing a pan of water to a boil while you do other things is always a good idea.

Another way to gain speed as you prep is to make sure your hands never cross over one another as you work. Think of what you’re doing as an assembly line; you would never work backwards. Move from right to left, or left to right, whichever is more comfortable. To prep asparagus, you have a pile of spears. Pick one up and snap the spear where is bends naturally — about a third of the way up from the base — then set the spear down in a clean pile and keep snapping at a rhythm.

Your water is boiling by the time you’ve cleaned up the ends. Keep the water on high heat. Add the asparagus and set the timer for about a minute and a half (for skinny spears) and two minutes for fatter ones. Meanwhile, set out a large bowl of very cold water. Test the asparagus; the tip of a knife should be able to pierce the thickest part of a spear with little resistance and they should still be bright green.

You need to get the spears from the boiling water to the cold water quickly. Don’t use flip flops. They’ll bruise the asparagus. Use a wide slotted spatula, if you have one, or even two large spoons. Dip the spears briefly into the cold water to stop the cooking, then lift them out and set them on a plate lined with a paper towel. After a minute, slide the towel out and the spears will be sufficiently dry.

At this point, you might add a vinaigrette or dress them simply with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.

You can roast asparagus, but they shrivel and never look as pretty. If you insist, they take about 10 minutes in a 400-degree oven; sprinkle them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Grilling is fine, but you need a vegetable grill pan so the spears don’t fall through the grates.

If you want to stir-fry asparagus, cut them into 2-inch lengths and cook them in hot olive oil for about two minutes, then sprinkle with lemon rind. Those are nice tossed with angel hair and a generous spoonful of Parmesan. Or add the short pieces to a bowl of quinoa. Or lay them on a sheet of puff pastry and bake till the pastry rises dramatically around them.

Now it’s time to head to the table. Old-fashioned etiquette books will tell you that plain asparagus are eaten with the fingers, buds down the hatch first. Saucy spears need a knife and fork.

In my household, it’s all fingers all the time, vinaigrette or not.


Sheryl Julian can be reached at sheryl.julian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.

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