There’s something about asparagus that makes it a bit intimidating. There’s an aura to it, a mystique, a set of rituals related to its seasonality and how fresh it ought to be, rules on how it should be cooked (steamed in an asparagus pot, if you can) and eaten, without overwhelming it (with just some melted butter, vinaigrette or hollandaise, if you must).
A colleague of mine, a seasoned British food writer, once confessed to feeling anxious as asparagus season approaches — not because he doesn’t like asparagus (who doesn’t?) but because of its status as a British national treasure, like Dame Judi Dench, say, an object of adoration people wouldn’t want you to mess with. “I really have to get it right,” he said to me.
Recipe: Crispy Coconut, Asparagus and Green Bean Salad
I can sympathize. There aren’t many other seasonal ingredients that stir an atypical overt excitement in the Brits. This is understandable. In the absence of the superstars of the European South (artichokes, tomatoes, zucchinis, figs, apricots), asparagus, which thrives in the cooler British air, is a very good veg to rally behind.
Because asparagus is revered, it is tempting not to do too much with it and just cook it in one of a few simple, familiar ways. Fresh, in-season asparagus is definitely up there, alongside any top Italian tomato, as a delicious experience in its own right, no bells and no whistles.
But this power to be served pretty much as is or lightly dressed and make a real impact can be misleading. Yes, less can be more when it comes to asparagus, but, paradoxically, asparagus is one of the most versatile actors on the vegetable stage.
It can generally go in one of two ways. There’s a heavy, fatty, creamy route, and then there’s a lighter, fresher salady path, as in this crispy asparagus-and-green-bean salad. Both are great and attest to asparagus’s ability to seamlessly slip into different costumes while still featuring its indisputable, well, asparagusness.
In the absence of the superstars, asparagus is a very good veg to rally behind.
I can’t think of many vegetables that can be swamped with layers of fat and cream without seriously protesting (admittedly, a potato can, but it can’t be eaten raw in a salad), and there are some outrageous examples of this unique skill.
In her cookbook “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” Samin Nosrat reduces two cups of heavy cream — add olive oil and Parmesan in very generous amounts — in an asparagus-and-mint pasta. Alice B. Toklas tossed her asparagus in melted butter and heavy cream. You would think she would have stopped there, right? But as she served it, she whipped up some more heavy cream, seasoned with salt and pepper, to ward off any false sense of restraint.
But the golden statuette goes to the chef Nancy Silverton. Her asparagus accompanies creamy burrata but — hear this — it is also adorned with slices of guanciale (fatty cured pork cheek), sprinkled with almonds toasted in olive oil and finished off with a whole cup of brown butter. The bread crumbs are optional, thankfully.
Joking aside: In all three dishes, the asparagus will no doubt withstand the heft and complexity of the rest of the ingredients and moderate them. That’s why asparagus is used and not zucchini, for example.
With the fresher route, I find that there’s quite a lot of room to play. You can take a minimalist approach and roast your asparagus spears with some oil and salt. This is best done at a very high temperature, say 500 degrees, for only about 10 minutes, so the outside blisters and cooks while the inside stays crisp and fresh. I serve it with a drizzle of lemon juice or a dollop of crème fraîche. I also love Alice Waters’s classic salad of raw, thinly shaved asparagus with vinaigrette and Parmesan. Freshness personified.
But, as established, asparagus can withstand a lot, so adding heat is another great option. Diana Henry, another British writer, simply mixes butter with harissa and lime, allows it to melt over the warm spears and then sprinkles over chopped lime zest, cilantro and garlic.
To my salad, I’ve added a crisp element, a sweet-and-spicy coconut sprinkle roughly based on serundeng, an Indonesian condiment. Alongside the radishes, it brings a crunch and a little sweetness.
I find it all a magnificent celebration of asparagus: a raucous symphony, with the vegetable in plain sight, no apologies and definitely no need for anxiety.