Here on the West Coast, the fruit trees are blooming and the asparagus has arrived in the markets, so there's no doubt about it: spring is here. Hooray! Let's take a look at one of the most basic ways of cooking this springtime treat: blanching.
I find asparagus, a member of the lily family, to be an intriguing vegetable. The spears shoot up quickly, growing 6 to 10 inches in one day and must be harvested the day it sprouts from the ground. If left to grow, the stalks can reach several feel high and become inedible. It is important to purchase your asparagus as fresh as possible as the sugars naturally found in the stalk will migrate to the cut ends and contribute to toughness and stringiness. So buy it from a good farmer or market, store it in the refrigerator, and cook it as soon as you can.
Asparagus can be prepared a number of ways including grilled, roasted, stir-fried, steamed, and sautéed. Today we are going to look at the most basic: blanched. Blanching asparagus is great because you don't need a lot of equipment or effort to get delicious, tender results.
Crisp-tender or how done is done?
The asparagus of my childhood wasn't very inspiring. The limp, sodden, drab green spears left me puzzled as to why this vegetable was considered to be a special treat. Then came the 80's and the advent of the crisp-tender approach to cooking vegetables. Here the asparagus was just barely cooked, leaving it bright green with a crisp texture. This was a big improvement, but many people, living in fear of the drab and sodden spears of yore, erred on the side of undercooking with overly crisp, if not crunchy, results. These days I cook my asparagus just a little longer than crisp-tender, so that it is still bright green but tender and juicy. How long does that take? Much depends on the size of your spears.
Pencil thin or thick and woody?
Another popular idea from the late 20th century is the superiority of 'pencil-thin' asparagus. The thinking was that thin asparagus would be sweeter and less tough than thicker spears. I personally don't see that much difference and don't care for the fact that the thinner asparagus is often more expensive It depends on the recipe, but I usually pick up the thicker spears, which I feel are more juicy and fun to eat.
To peel or not to peel?
Peeling asparagus is an old-school method for sweet, succulent spears as you are removing the potentially fibrous outer layer. While I occasionally appreciate peeling for its elegant, retro charm, unless the asparagus is really old and tough, I usually don't peel it. I feel its a waste of time and asparagus, especially if the spears are young and fresh. Whether you do it or not is up to you, but one thing to note is that peeled asparagus will need slightly less cooking time.
What about trimming the ends?
I was surprised when I was once served untrimmed whole asparagus from someone who is usually a knowledgeable cook. The upper 3/4s of the spears were delicious but the ends were tough and inedible. She just shrugged and said that this was how her family did it and instructed us to leave the tough ends on the plate. I'm decidedly in the pre-trimmed camp of asparagus cooking and use the snap method to break of the tough, woody ends before cooking and serving. If you are worried that there still may be tough, fibrous bits left over from your snap technique, just cut a piece of the stalk and taste. The toughness will be obvious and you can slice a little deeper into the stalk to remove it if necessary.
Whole spears or pieces?
I really enjoy asparagus as an addition to green and grain salads, pasta, on pizza, in frittatas, and many other springtime dishes. For that reason, most of the time I cook my asparagus already cut into pieces. This also helps me to start the stalks cooking first and add quick-cooking tips after a few minutes so everything ends up perfectly done. However, whole spears make a lovely presentation. They need just a little longer to cook — roughly 4 to 4 1/2 minutes or so total.
Should you salt the water?
It's very important to salt your blanching water well. This will season the vegetables and (according to Harold McGee) keep them from leaching too many nutrients out into the water. I add about 2 tablespoons of salt to 6 cups of water.
Do you need an ice water bath?
I don't know about you, but I never have enough ice cubes in my house, so the whole question of having an ice water bath on hand to plunge the just-off-the stove asparagus into is always problematic. The reasons stated for this is that it will stop the cooking and retain the bright color. So I got to wondering: is it necessary? The answer, I believe, is yes and no. According to food science geeks (Mr. Myhrvold, for example) an ice bath doesn't cool the internal core temperature and spreading them out on a surface to cool works just as well. But many people have had really good results with 'shocking' vegetables in ice water, especially to retain a bright color. So I say, if you think its worth the fuss then go right ahead. But I don't bother.
Instead of futzing with a bowl of ice water, I simply toss my asparagus immediately in a touch of olive oil (because Harold McGee says that this helps to keep them from losing too much water) and spread them out on a cutting board or in a wide dish to cool. Works for me — while the asparagus isn't neon bright, it is still quite green.
How To Blanch Asparagus
What You Need
2-quart sauce pan or large skillet
Colander or tea towel
Knife and cutting board
Perforated spoon or tongs
Bowl for tossing in oil
- Get the water started. Fill your sauce pan or skillet with about 6 cups of water. Add about 2 tablespoons of salt and set on a burner on your stove over high heat.
- Snap the ends! Holding one end of the asparagus in each of your hands, bend it until it naturally snaps in two. Discard the tough ends. Alternatively, you can slice off the bottom third and taste the stalks, continuing to cut into the main stalk until it isn't fibrous any more.
- Wash. Rinse the asparagus under cold running water and drain in a colander or on a clean tea towel.
- Cut into pieces and reserve the tops. If you aren't serving whole stalks, cut the asparagus into pieces. One- to two-inch pieces are good for most recipes. Be sure to keep the stalk pieces and tips separate.
- Blanch. When the water has reached a full boil, plunge the stalks into the pot and cover. Start your timer. After 2 1/2 minutes, remove the cover and add the tips. Cook another minute and check for doneness. The asparagus will continue to cook a little bit when removed from the water, so they should be a little less cooked than you want them to be. Whole stalks may need another 30 to 60 seconds. Remove from water using perforated spoon or tongs, or by dumping the water into the colander in the sink.
- Immediately toss with oil and cool. Immediately place the asparagus in a bowl and toss with a small glug of olive oil. Toss and spread out to cool.
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(Images: Dana Velden)