I just had a brainwave on cooking asparagus.
Most people boil asparagus for varying lengths of time. There’s a trade-off between how flavoursome the end result is, and the texture. If you boil for 2 or 3 minutes, you keep much of the flavour but you end up with a texture which is too crunchy for many people. If you boil for longer, you lose a lot of flavour into the water. There is also a change in the quality of the flavour, boiling it for a short period of times gives it a much ‘grassier’ flavour.
Steaming asparagus is a great improvement as much less flavour is lost into the water. About 4 or 5 minutes works reasonably well.
One way to keep more of the flavour is to cook the asparagus in a small amount of oil or butter instead of a large amount of water. Sauteing, baking and roasting all produce lovely strongly flavoured asparagus. But there’s another problem here, which is that when you use these methods, it tends to colour the asparagus. At the extreme (cooking them in a frying pan with oil) you tend to get almost burnt bits by the time the asparagus is cooked through. This is worst at the tips, a problem you can alleviate by cutting off the very fine hairy bit at the very tip. This method of cooking them also tends to accentuate the dark, earthy qualities of the flavour, which is sometimes just what you want but not always.
The biggest breakthrough for me was seeing how Heston Blumenthal (one of the top chefs in the world) cooks asparagus. His method is to peel the stalks but leaves the tips as they are (see below), and then to cook them gently in a frying pan in butter. He also recommends serving them with very thin slices of button mushrooms, shavings of white truffle and finely chopped chervil – very luxurious but not very practical. Whenever I can be bothered I now use the peeling method which seems to bring out all the unique qualities of the asparagus flavour without the grassy or earthy flavours (which are presumably denser in the skin of the stalk than elsewhere). But, it’s a lot of work to individually peel asparagus stalks, especially if they are thin ones.
Before I get to the brainwave, here is how my godfather Mikey cooks them. He half boils them, but reserves some of the cooking liquid. Having done so, he puts butter, garlic, the boiled asparagus and the reserved liquid into a pan and finishes cooking them, whilst also reducing the liquid and making a delicious sauce to go with them. It’s a great method, but I thought that it might be possible to do better. First of all – you’re still losing lots of flavour into the water. Not as much because you’re not completely cooking them in the water, and you reserve some of the liquid (but only a small amount). Second – this method commits you to having a sauce to go with them. Usually that’s fine, but what if you wanted to use them as part of another recipe rather than serving on their own?
So at last, the brainwave…
I wanted a method for cooking asparagus which didn’t involve peeling, but retained as much flavour as possible, inspired by Mikey’s method. I tried my new method tonight (along with a Dorade stuffed with thyme and baked with tomatoes, olives, white wine, olive oil, bay leaves and slices of lemon), and it worked very well indeed.
In a frying pan large enough to hold all the asparagus you intend to cook in roughly one layer (a bit of overlap is fine, but not as much as two layers), melt a decent amount of butter. Maybe 20g of butter for a bunch of 15-20 spears. Enough to generously coat the base of the pan anyway. Throw in the asparagus, stir and cook for a short while. Now pour in a small amount of boiling water from a kettle, enough to come half way up the asparagus spears. Bring this to the boil and cook at a fast simmer or slow boil. You want to time it so that the water has all boiled off at the exact moment that the asparagus is cooked through. You should end up with a fairly dry pan and juicy, perfectly cooked asparagus.
It’s still not quite as good as the peeling method, but it’s the best I’ve managed so far without peeling. You still lose some flavour to the boiled off water, but not as much as simply boiling or steaming.