Whether you like them reed-thin or as fat as cigars, fresh asparagus spears benefit from some simple care and proper timing in preparation.
Begin by buying the vegetable from a good source.
A busy store with lots of turnover is apt to have fresh asparagus. Natural sugars convert to starches quickly, so much of the fresh flavor is lost if the vegetable is stored too long.
Look for spears displayed standing on end, preventing damage to the fragile crowns.
If the vegetable is standing in a shallow pool of water -- which, as with cut flowers, is absorbed through the exposed stems to help preserve freshness -- that water should be clear and fresh.
Choose crisp-looking asparagus. Avoid stalks that appear withered or shrunken. The heads should be smooth and tightly closed, without an appearance of barbed points protruding.
Try to consume or at least cook asparagus the same day it is purchased. For presentation on a cold plate, flavor generally is better when the chilled vegetable is served within 24 hours.
Trimming asparagus is a personal call. Julia Child's old advice works fine: Simply hold the tough end between the forefinger and thumb of one hand, grasp the stem near its center with your other forefinger and thumb, and then bend. The vegetable will naturally "snap" close to the point where tender flesh merges with tough flesh.
Fatter asparagus may benefit from a bit of peeling. Refined palates prefer a preliminary paring -- just enough to remove the tougher skin toward the ends of the individual stalks. Use the tip of a sharp knife and peel an inch or two of the outer skin.
Finally, cook the stuff. Here's how:
1. Ready a saute or frying pan large enough to hold the stalks in a single layer (or no more than two layers). Stainless steel, enamel-clad iron or heat-proof glass are preferable.
2. Fill the pan with water. Bring the liquid to a full boil, and add plain salt to taste. As for the liquid, you may want to consider these options -- though purists may fret that some may interfere with the vegetable's flavor:
Fresh (not canned) vegetable broth will minimize leaching flavor from the asparagus and may even help older, less-sweet stalks.
Use chicken stock, which will affect the flavor but only comparatively delicately.
Remove tough stems from the stalks, and first add them to the cooking water to flavor it slightly. Remove and discard them before proceeding.
3. Plunge the trimmed asparagus into the rapidly boiling liquid.
4. Another debate: Either boil the asparagus rapidly or reduce the heat to a simmer. The length of time varies with personal taste and thickness of stems. Modern tastes, however, lean toward al dente (tender but still a bit bitey).