I read your article on cooking asparagus and wondered about peeling thick asparagus. My questions are this- how can I tell at what thickness I should peel the asparagus? If it needs to be peeled, how high up the stem do I peel?
Asparagus comes in thicknesses from pencil-thin to jumbo, with all sizes in between. Though I’ve searched, I’ve found no consistent correlation between size and nomenclature, so let’s just consider anything over one-half inch in diameter as “large.” That’s where I’d suggest peeling the stalks will make a difference in the tenderness of asparagus.
It partly depends on how fresh the asparagus is, though, and partly on the dish you’re making. Older asparagus with dried out ends should have more of the bottoms removed; and in dishes like stir-fries, you can use a roll cut which exposes more of the interior and therefore won’t need to be peeled at all. But let’s move on to how to prepare thicker asparagus.
Some people say to cut off the bottoms where the tough part ends, and some say to hold the asparagus with both hands and bend – that it will break where it stops being tender. I disagree with both approaches. In the case of cutting, how do you know where it stops being tough? The color of the stalk is a clue, but is not always accurate. In the case of bending, it’s easy to break off too much.
I hold the tough end in one hand and ease the other hand up the stalk, testing along the way for where it feels like it will snap. And usually, that’s just perfect. Sometimes you’ll snap off a little too much, but you’ll get the feel for it. Go through the entire bunch until you have edible portions in one pile and tough portions in another (don’t toss those – you can use them.)
If you have the knife skills, you can hold the stalk in your non-dominant hand and carefully peel from below the bud down to the end with a slender paring knife. Unless you’re precise, this will tend to remove too much peel; and Y-peelers, which are better for removing the skin from thick-skinned vegetables like squash, will also remove too much peel. So I prefer to use a swivel peeler.
And those discarded butt ends and peels? Simmer them together in a little water for 10-15 minutes, to make asparagus broth. It’s good in cream of asparagus soup and risotto with asparagus – a thrifty way to boost the flavor in both dishes.