Best way to enjoy asparagus this spring
Perish the thought of canned asparagus, and try this method with the fresh, seasonal kind instead
If spring is here, then asparagus is hot on its heels. Asparagus has an allure which few other edible plants can match. It’s surely not because of its elegant genes (the plant is part of the lily family), but more likely because, as with artichoke, it remains obstinately seasonal, making the annual arrival so much sweeter. And, OK, the high price — it’s a massively labour intensive crop — stops it from ever being taken for granted.
While it is no doubt tiresome to read once again about the smelly urine which the plant imparts after eating, it’s worth mentioning because there are people out there who think they don’t suffer from this after-effect. In fact, the truth is that everyone’s wee stinks after eating the stuff; it’s just that some humans lack the genetic apparatus to detect the smell. If you thought you were immune, you may want to choose a cubicle instead of the urinal, after the next restaurant asparagus situation. Or open windows wider, if in a domestic context.
Good asparagus is so indecently glorious, that the entire pantheon of gods probably can’t fathom how the hideous canned sort didn’t die a natural death after the first batch were bought and consumed. I once met them upon a pizza. It was truly surreal. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen these flaccid, watery stems on parade for quite a while. Could it be that everyone came to their senses? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to give them a massively wide berth.
My favourite treatment of smallish green asparagus is hardly a recipe, but more an idea. It’s stupidly simple but adds a whole extra dimension to the spears, without masking them at all. It involves the addition of sesame seeds and salt, plus olive or grapeseed oil, or best of all ghee. From a health perspective, ghee is the winner: because it contains higher levels of saturated fat, it’s more stable than vegetable-based oils under the extreme high heat you need here. The sesame seed pleases me, with its hint at asparagus’ eastern Mediterranean origins. If you hate sesame though, shaving parmesan over the cooked green pile just before serving, adds a similarly nutty depth.
Place the spears bud-side down in cold water for 30 minutes or so, to let any grit drift out. Bend each stem near the base and snap off the end where it naturally breaks. Chuck asparagus into a bowl and gently mix with the oil or melted ghee to cover well. Add good salt, generously. Toast a handful of white sesame seed in an empty, unoiled large pan until golden, and remove to cool. Get the pan unsensibly hot, then dump in the oiled and salted asparagus, which should smoke and sizzle madly. Toss about until scorched and softening. Test a few. When just tender enough to bite, and when all are flecked with browny-burned bits, remove, scatter the sesame over and serve. Damn good as is, with feta or under a steak. Also brilliant eaten ancient Roman style, with fish.