Asparagus is at its peak – poking through the ground and growing as fast as 10 inches per day when the weather is hot. If you can get it straight from the farm (or the ground) it’s delicious eaten raw, straight-up, with the flavor of fresh peas. When selecting asparagus look for spears with purply tops – an indication of sweetness. And contrary to popular belief, thinner is not necessarily better – many even prefer thicker spears, and believe they are sweeter. In fact, if you plan to grill your asparagus, the thicker stalks are easier to handle with tongs and less easily slip through the grate. Regardless of size, what you want is asparagus that’s tender and not woody – tender asparagus comes in all sizes. If you snap off the bottoms where they naturally break and only about an inch comes off, that’s a good sign – the older, woodier stalks will lose almost the entire bottom half.
Once picked, store your asparagus in a bundle, standing upright in a container with about an inch of water in the bottom, in the fridge. Asparagus is particularly high in vitamin K and folate, with good amounts of vitamin C and A; it will also deliver a dose of fiber for very few calories. Nutritionally, it’s a great deal. If you have the opportunity to pick your own, the stalks are particularly delicious plucked from the ground, wiped clean on your jeans and eaten straight-up. Otherwise, steam them with a small amount of water (if you want to save those nutrients, use the leftover greenish water in soups or stews, or go ahead and chug it – vitamins are always best from food sources) just until they are tender-crisp, roast them in a 400F oven in a slick of canola oil, or brush them with oil and give them a few minutes on a hot grill. (See more elaborate instructions below.)
Grilled Asparagus: snap the woody ends off a bunch of asparagus wherever they naturally break, toss them with canola or olive oil and grill directly on a preheated grill rack (lay them crosswise on the grates, if need be) for 4-5 minutes, depending on their thickness and the heat of the grill turning as needed, until tender and grill-marked.
Roasted Asparagus with Parmesan: Preheat the oven to 450°F. To prepare asparagus, you’ll need to snap about an inch off the ends; they will break naturally wherever the tender part ends and woody part begins. Place the stalks in a shallow baking pan or on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle them with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss with your fingers to coat well. Roast for 8-10 minutes, depending on their thickness, until they are tender and golden. Shake the pan occasionally to make sure they brown evenly. Remove the asparagus from the oven and immediately sprinkle them with Parmesan. Shake them around on the pan so that the cheese melts a little and gets distributes evenly over the asparagus.
Once you know how to roast and grill asparagus, here are a few ways to dress it up for dinner:
Asparagus with Balsamic Glaze: Simmer 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan set over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, until it’s reduced by half. Drizzle roasted asparagus (see instructions above) with the reduced vinegar and another tablespoon of olive oil, along with the Parmesan.
Asparagus with Lemon-Anchovy Sauce: Stir 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, 2-3 tsp. anchovy paste (or 2 chopped fillets), and 2 Tbsp. capers into the olive oil and pour it over fresh asparagus, coating it well, before roasting it (see instructions above).
Asparagus with Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette: Whisk together 2 Tbsp. sesame oil, 2 Tbsp. soy sauce, 2 Tbsp. lime juice, 1 Tbsp. honey, 1 chopped green onion, 1 tsp. grated fresh ginger and 1 crushed clove of garlic and drizzle over roasted (see instructions above) asparagus.
Roasted Asparagus with Bacon: Chop 2-3 slices of bacon and cook them until they’re crisp. Remove the bacon from the pan and drizzle some of the bacon drippings over the asparagus instead of using the oil. Roast as directed above. Squeeze some lemon juice over the roasted asparagus and sprinkle them with the crispy bacon and Parmesan or about 2 oz. crumbled goat cheese.
Roasted or Grilled Asparagus with Lemony Aïoli: add a squeeze of lemon and a bit of grated zest to some good-quality mayo along with a small squirt of grainy mustard and/or a small clove of crushed garlic; serve with roasted or grilled asparagus, for dipping.