Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef, author of Old-School Comfort Food and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her PEOPLE.com blog every Tuesday to get her professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories of working in front of the camera and behind the kitchen doors. Follow her on Twitter at @guarnaschelli.
I love the first spring vegetables: parsnips, Fiddlehead ferns, ramps and…asparagus!
A lot of these vegetables need to be cooked soon after they are picked. The sugar that resides beautifully in asparagus, for example, starts to leave town slowly as soon as the asparagus are picked. So if you buy it, cook it ASAP!
Asparagus can be pricey so in my book they better be good. How to find good ones? Look for firm, clean, straight stalks. Wobbly stalks are a telltale sign of old asparagus. Use a sharp knife to trim only the very bottom from the stalk—breaking it off causes more of the bottom to go to waste. With pencil asparagus, the stalks are too thin to peel. For larger asparagus, I peel them (because the outer skin can be tough once cooked) and leave the tips intact.
What’s the classic method for cooking asparagus? I like asparagus al dente or slightly crunchy. A 6-ounce serving of pencil asparagus will cook al dente in boiling water in about 2-3 minutes; add enough salt after the water begins to boil until it tastes like mild seawater. Transfer the stalks to a bowl of cold water with ice to stop them from cooking further, dry them off and serve them whole drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil.
Don’t want to deal with the ice water? Prepare a dressing with two parts olive, walnut or hazelnut oil and one part lemon juice. Drain the asparagus, dry them of excess moisture and toss them, warm, into the bowl with the dressing. Allow them to marinate for a few minutes before serving. Season with salt to taste.
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What about roasted asparagus? Drawing the water from the stalks by roasting them leaves you with the purest asparagus taste. Lightly coat the stalks with olive oil, salt and pepper and spread them evenly across a baking sheet. Place them in a roaring hot 400º oven for about 3-5 minutes. You can also drop the asparagus in a single layer into a hot pan with some olive oil and roast them on top of the stove just as easily. Be careful to add vinegar or lemon only just before serving. If left on too long, the acid will turn any green vegetable brown if left to sit even for a few minutes.
But the simplest preparation of all is my steamed asparagus with ginger dressing. I really like what some ginger and lemon do for spring asparagus. I find the first ones, early in the season, are tenderer and can be bought so thin that they don’t need to be peeled! Make the dressing and set up the steamer. When ready to eat, simply steam them for 2-4 minutes (depending on how thick or thin they are) and serve on the spot with the dressing!
Steamed Asparagus with Ginger Dressing
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
A few grates zest and the juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp. freshly grated ginger
1 small clove garlic, minced
42 medium-size pieces green asparagus, washed, ends trimmed and lower half individually peeled
1. Combine all of the ingredients in a jar or container with a fitted cover and shake until blended. Taste for seasoning.
2. Use a steamer to steam the asparagus in a single layer until tender, 5-6 minutes. Season with salt. Drizzle with the dressing and serve immediately.