Somewhere in the past twenty years or so, people have gotten the idea that the most healthful way to prepare vegetables is to steam them. That may be so – up to a point – but it’s also a method that’s responsible for a lot of overcooked vegetables and bored palates.
The first method of preparing vegetables we were taught in cooking school was proper boiling. Our chef was of the opinion that it didn’t matter how many nutrients remained in a bunch of green beans or a head of broccoli, if it wasn’t consumed enthusiastically. Point taken!
So to cook green vegetables, we learned to bring a large quantity of water to a boil, salt it liberally, add the vegetables and bring the water rapidly back to the boil, and cook them uncovered just until done. Then they were either served immediately or plunged into ice water to stop the cooking if they were being prepared in advance.
Here’s the reasoning behind the method. Use a lot of water because otherwise the water will cool down when you add the vegetables and they’ll take longer to cook, get soggy, lose color, and leach nutrients. The generous amount of salt helps set the bright green color. The rapidly boiling water cooks them as quickly as possible.
One of the problems with steaming is that it’s done covered. Vegetables like green beans, broccoli, and asparagus contain volatile acids which will condense in the steam that collects on the inside of the lid, fall back down onto the vegetables, and turn them olive green. This is neither attractive nor appetizing. It’s also easy to overcook them this way, as you can’t see what’s happening in the pot. And if you have a large quantity in the steamer, the vegetables on the bottom may cook more quickly than those on top. Boiling allows them to circulate evenly in the pot, thus cooking evenly. Assuming you like to serve your asparagus whole, it doesn’t fit comfortably into one of those collapsible metal steamers, either.
Selecting your asparagus is the first step. Buy from a source that stores it with the stems in water. If the bunches are lying on their sides with the butt ends bare, they’ll lose moisture and quality. Be sure the buds are closed. Size doesn’t affect taste; slender, medium, or fat stalks can all be sweet if young and fresh. Slender asparagus cooks more quickly, and doesn’t require peeling. Because the tips are more tender than the stalks, fat asparagus are improved by peeling, which equalizes the cooking times. Bend the stalk and it will naturally snap where it gets fibrous. Then peel the stems from below the bud down to the end. Trim the butt ends. Save the fibrous portions and trimmings for soup, if you like.
(You can buy special tall, narrow asparagus cookers with an insert that allow you to boil the stems while steaming the tips, saving you the task of peeling. Don’t bother; mine is pushed all the way to the back of the cupboard. Unless you’re preparing a large amount, peeling doesn’t take that long.)
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Salt the water, and add the asparagus a handful at a time. Return the water to the boil, and don’t leave the kitchen. Slender asparagus can be done in as little as two minutes, and even large asparagus don’t take more than five. Test by sliding a paring knife into the stem of one spear, or by lifting a spear out of the water. If it bends, it’s done. (If it droops, it’s overdone.)
Note that the timing here refers to green asparagus. It was one of the disappointments of my life when I moved to Switzerland and found white asparagus in the market. I had often read about it, and assumed it was superior to the green. Not so – it takes significantly longer to cook and is more fibrous than the green variety. When I got back to the States, I had to recalibrate my timing after I overcooked the asparagus for an Easter dinner (I do tend to remember my culinary goofs.) Save your money and stick with green asparagus; it’s also cheaper.
Remove from the heat and plunge into ice water – a process called “shocking” – to stop the cooking. When it’s completely cold, drain the asparagus and store wrapped in paper towels to absorb any residual moisture. Voilá – perfectly cooked asparagus ready to be eaten cold with a vinaigrette or flavored mayonnaise, or gently heated in a tablespoon or two of water in a large skillet before saucing. Mmm, thinking about it makes me happy that I have some waiting for me in the fridge.