On a warm spring day you can almost hear them growing. Viewed in the field, asparagus are among the oddest of edible vegetables, sending rocket-like stalks straight out of the soil without any kind of leafy preamble. In balmy conditions, asparagus can grow from a barely visible lavender tip to a green, sweet, snapping stalk in about three days. Once the temperature rises to a certain point, the feast is done and the plant devotes a nimbus of ferny leaves and woody stems to storing energy for next year.
All of which means that through late June — and sometimes later — New England has fat bunches of native asparagus that demand to be cooked and eaten, maybe several times a week. You can steam asparagus and slap on some butter, and it’ll taste very good for those first dozen times. But if you really want to make the most of the season, it helps to have a repertoire.
Fortunately, few vegetables are as forgiving as asparagus, and few can be cooked in as many ways. Asparagus don’t wilt in the pan like greens do, they don’t stick or stink like cabbages or broccoli, and they don’t take forever like roots. And they require little preparation: Just a quick snap of the bottom stalk, wherever it naturally wants to break when you hold the flower end in one hand and the root end in the other. You can take a peeler to thick stalks, but really fresh asparagus will rarely need it.
Perhaps the most familiar asparagus preparations involve steaming or boiling, maybe draped in a bit of supple Hollandaise once they get to the plate. It’s quick and hard to go wrong. If you boil them too long, it’s possible to overcook them, but even then they’re not bad pureed into a soup. You can even eat them raw shaved into a salad.
The spears fulfill their potential with dry heat. A little oil and a lot of heat is all it takes to produce a mouthwatering caramelized surface on the spears, stir-fried or roasted. Grilling or roasting can lead to gilded and blistered skin and delicately crisp stalks that make fresh asparagus memorable.
Those banded platoons of asparagus in markets, upright in their trays, take pride of place when they’re in season. They may seem like they’ll stick around for months, but don’t be fooled. By the time local peaches have blushed and ripened, those stalwart spears will be gone, not to be spotted till another welcome spring comes round.