Market Matters- Asparagus Through Thick and Thin

perfect asparagus tipsIf there is one universally loved vegetable it seems to be asparagus. Even the fussy eaters in my life, or the “no vegetables for me please” freaks, will eat asparagus. I know people who eat it several times a week. Even when it’s off season, expensive and not that great.

So now that it is in season, cheap, and really great I thought the time was right to honor it with this weeks Market Matters post from the Hollywood Farmers Market.

I love asparagus. But not all asparagus is the same. There are the very thin types. Often called baby asparagus. Which is misnomer because the thin spears are usually from older plants and are produced further out from the center of the plant.

Thin asparagus is usually a bit stringier. It has an earthier, more pronounced flavor in my opinion too. This does not mean it is not as good as fat asparagus. In fact many people prefer this type. I would say fat or thin are pretty much equally good. If handled properly.

aparagus soup with pancettaFat spears almost always needs to be peeled. Thick asparagus seems to concentrate its fibers in the skin. Peeling them is necessary because otherwise they become a mushy mess by the time they have cooked enough to get the skin tender.

A nice thick, peeled asparagus with a creamy interior is my favorite type generally. Once peeled these monsters can be cooked rather quickly. This ensures a bright green color and a perfect crisp-tender texture. You know you have achieved this when you can easily insert a knifepoint into the thick part of the stalk.

Peeling them is not difficult. Plus I have a trick that makes it even easier. I learned it from Mark Bittman. Well, I mean from reading Mark Bittman.

Sometimes when peeling an asparagus you find the pressure exerted onto the spear snaps it in half as you work. Leaving you with broken pieces of perfectly good asparagus. You are disappointed, of course, because you wanted long elegant spears.

Try laying the asparagus on the counter top as you work. Rolling each spear as you run the peeler from stem to bud. I also recommend waiting until after you have peeled them to trim off the woody bottoms. Sure you will end up doing a little extra peeling, but the results will be cleaner and more uniform spears.

Thick and peeled asparagus is a great choice for quick steaming or poaching. They can be served hot but are also terrific cold. Make a simple vinaigrette or an aioli and you are set.  Of course, they also make the perfect base for soups and salads. They can be very versatile once prepped and poached.

To me thin spears have fewer, but bolder possibilities.

They are just plain better grilled or broiled or roasted than fat spears are. So save them for these purposes. They also cook very quickly which makes them a good choice in a stir-fry. They have the added advantage of not needing to be peeled.

Thin spears with their stronger flavor; hold up better to big flavor partners like, garlic, bacon, good salt and lots of cracked black pepper. I am a sucker for bold flavors, so take advantage of this possibility when cooking with thin spears.

All that said. I am going to break most of these rules right now.

I am making a soup. It is based on a soup I once had at The Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. Judy Rodgers also has a similar recipe in her Cookbook of the same name. But my version is closer to my memory of what I had in the restaurant than the version I read in her cookbook. Very likely it is one of those soups that changed with the whim of the chef. Be advised always bow down to Judy Rodger’s whims.

Asparagus, Pancetta and Rice Soup.

asparagus and pancetta soupThis is a fairly bold soup. It’s a real mouthful of flavor and texture. There are but a few ingredients. So each step is important. Especially in achieving all the varied textures that made this soup so memorable to me.

I am using thick spears of really good spring asparagus. But despite what I said earlier – I am not peeling them! That’s because I want a varied texture. I want some of the asparagus to cook quite a bit. But, I also want some of it to brown and fry a bit, and (yes, I have more expectations) I also want some of the asparagus to stay crisp bright and sweet.

Thick or thin, in this instance there is no need to peel the asparagus. Because I am slicing it very thin (1/8) on the diagonal and I want it to hold its structure. Some of these discs will be tossed into the broth to poach. Others will be pan-fried along with pancetta. You can see how this will get us to the wildly divergent groups of textures I described.

The rest of the flavor comes from very good chicken stock and lots of freshly cracked black pepper.

Click on over to the recipe. Because I can describe the experience of sweet, crunchy asparagus, deep rich chicken broth and chewy fried pancetta all highlighted by a strong peppery finish. But I think the whole thing will be made more clear once you read the recipe.


Greg Henry