If you've never had properly cooked asparagus, you're missing out on something wonderful indeed.
So many professional kitchens send spears to the table undercooked that if you're accustomed to eating asparagus in restaurants, it's entirely possible you've never experienced how luscious it can be.
Undercooked asparagus, crunchy and forbidding, can taste like a punishment. But if you simmer asparagus long enough to cook it through, its texture becomes soft and almost creamy, and its lovely flavor comes into full bloom.
It's worth taking the time to peel it first. First trim off the woody end of the stalk, then use a vegetable peeler to (gently, so you don't break the stalk) peel it about two thirds of the way up to the tip. I find that letting the spear rest flat on the cutting board and using very gentle pressure to peel gets the job done most easily.
Set a pan of salted water to a boil, add the asparagus and cook, covered, until the spears are tender. How long this will take depends on their thickness. Medium-thin to medium spears will take about 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 minutes, jumbos a bit longer.
But rather than time them, I lift them gently with tongs, and when they're just a bit floppy, I pull them out.
Then I might serve them warm, letting a small pat of butter melt over them first if that's my mood, or leaving them plain if I'm going lo-cal.
If you know your way around a kitchen, you won't need an actual recipe for this, but in case you do, here it is.
Once you discover (or rediscover) this simple pleasure, you'll probably want to branch out. You can prepare the spears this way, skip the butter, pour a vinaigrette over them and serve them either warmish or room temp. You can also shock them in cold water, chill them, then dress in vinaigrette later. For the vinaigrette, I might go one of four ways: simple vinaigrette with a little Dijon mustard; the same boosted with a dab of anchovy paste; dressed in a simple vinaigrette then garnished with crushed pink peppers; or dressed in a shallot vinaigrette.
Of course there's an exception to the thorough cooking idea: Shaved raw asparagus can be wonderful in salads or as a garnish on fish or chicken dishes. But when you do choose to cook them, the lesson of thorough cooking holds for other methods besides poaching: stir-frying, roasting or grilling. (Lots of people steam asparagus, but it's not a method I love for this veg.) In any case, if you cook them past that hard, green-tasting crunchiness, they're so much nicer.
WARM BUTTERED ASPARAGUS
Recipe by Leslie Brenner
Prep time: 5 Min
Active cooking time: 6 Min
Total time: 11 Min
This dish is the simplest of luxuries: asparagus spears peeled and simmered in salted water till they're cooked through, at which point they take on an almost custardy tenderness, then buttered. Do try it, if you've never eaten them this way, or haven't in some time. Or you can skip the butter and dress the spears in vinaigrette, or even eat them plain. Want to go fancy? Try them with a traditional or new-wave gribiche. If you have more or less asparagus than the suggested 1 1/2 pounds (which generously serves four), it doesn't matter: Nothing needs to be measured; this is more a technique than a recipe. It works with asparagus spears of any thickness, except those so skinny you wouldn't be able to peel them. (I prefer to roast or grill those.)
About 1 1/2 pounds asparagus
Sea salt or Kosher salt
A pat of butter (about a tablespoon)
Trim the woody bottom ends off the asparagus stalks, then use a vegetable peeler to peel each stalk to about two-thirds of the way up. This is easiest if you lay the stalk flat on a cutting board as you gently peel, so the stalk doesn't break.
Bring a wide, shallow pan of water to a boil over high heat and add enough salt to make it taste like the sea. Lay the asparagus in flat (you'll want it completely submerged), cover the pan, and simmer until the asparagus stalks flop down on the ends when you lift them in the middle with tongs – about 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 minutes for medium-thin to medium spears, longer for jumbos.
Use the tongs to transfer to a platter, and pour off any water that accumulates. Top with the butter and slide the pat around the spears to let it melt. Serve immediately.