The Samovar

May 3, 2007, 11:50 pm
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food, Recipes

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.



Actually, peeled or not, asparagus has to be steamed sufficiently to bring out the taste. It tastes somewhat different raw. I think the cooking does something to the asparagine amino acid (a rare sulphur-containing amino acid that gives the familiar smell to asparagus eaters’ urine). But, yes – definitely steam rather than boil. I extend the height of my steamer with an internal collar of tinfoil.

In Germany, where asparagus (der Spargel) is a religion, they eat huge, thick (1cm+)stems of pale, forced asparagus (grown under flowerpots or by mulching the tips). They always peel, but you can buy them ready-peeled. Some shops/ market stalls have peel-while-u-wait machines). The best way to eat them is with fully-flavoured, yellow boiled potatoes, a poached egg and gallons of butter.

But…te best way to cook (green) asparagus involves neither steaming nor boiling. Preheat your oven to No. 11. Toss the asparagus in good olive oil. Whack them on a baking tray and sprinkle with a little sea salt. Top of the oven for 5-10 minutes (more like 5). Serve with a little drizzle of lemon and a few shavings or parmesan. Trust me. This will change your life.

I adore asparagus. But it’s one vegetable that I absolutely refuse to buy out of season.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

I was actually bought an ‘asparagus steamer’ for a recent birthday! 🙂 It’s just a very tall steamer basically.

Comment by thesamovar

I ‘steam’ mine lying down in a frying pan with next to no water in it and a vented lid. And then my black cat Azar smells it cooking and complains until I give him a few choice pieces. Weirdo.

I’d never heard about peeling it before

I normally cook mine until it has just a bit of ‘bite’ in it (not too soft) and there is no water left in the pan.

I’ve had very nice wild asparagus cooked on a grill with some olive oil drizzled over top at tapa bars here.

Comment by azahar

az – sounds quite like my new method. I’m playing catchup!

I didn’t think cats went it for veg on their own much.

Comment by thesamovar

Yes – grilled would have the same effect as my roasting method. Seriously – do try it.

Meanwhile, I’ve bloggedmy tagliatelle.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Will do Ed. I’m gorging on the stuff at the moment, as – I expect – are you.

I couldn’t comment on the tagliatelle blog because anonymous comments are disabled, but the Armando Ianucci quote at the bottom reminded me of my own Diana joke faux pas which might amuse you. At a ‘foundation scholars’ dinner at Cambridge (silly posh affair for people who get firsts, involving gowns and masonic handshakes), someone mentioned it was almost a year since Diana had died so I thought everyone would be amused to hear my brother’s joke, that there should be a national holiday called “Di and Dodi Die Day”. Figuring that everyone at the dinner was fairly intelligent, I assumed that they wouldn’t be a bunch of monarchists and they’d find it funny. Anyway, a deafening silence ensued for a few seconds and then someone said quietly “That’s sick.” Needless to say – I didn’t achieve any ‘networking’ during my time there.

Comment by thesamovar

Or as someone else said:

“Di died, Dodi died, Dando died…Dido must be shitting herself.”

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Not new, but a variation on keeping lost flavour; if you boil or steam you loose some flavour to the liquid or gas, or it would not turn green. Making a sauce is just putting the flavour back whilst adding other flavours (in my case butter and garlic). Flavour loss is a product of time and heat intensity, thus the outside looses more flavour than the inside, by the time the inside is cooked. To cook quicker and hence (in theory)loose less flavour from the outside whilst the inside is cooking I’ve tried this. Shred the lower parts of the stalk into four, and stick your knife throught the upper parts, to let the heat in (in the water medium) in quicker, cooking is quicker and the flavour is more evenly distributed during the bite, there is less bland. Also I’ve tried using less and less water so it is half steamed and I put the garlic and butter in together as soon as it boils. Thats a thin layer of water into a hot pan which you have to keep adding to and using a lid (smaller than the pan just to cover/seal the stalks. The net result is in effect reduction with less cooking (as there is also less to reduce in the first place)reciculating the flavoured steam with the lid, the garlic is ‘rawer’ and the sauce more emulsion like, so I strain the sauce straight to the plate. You get greener stalks, hardly any sauce and a stronger flavour. I have to admit though that I’m not sure that I’m just not cooking it enough and it takes so much focus that it has to be a seperate course (like a starter) unless everything else looks after itself. However I do not mind two sauces on a plate and it is stronger as long as you like the change in bite and texture.

Comment by Mikey

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