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Food

Asparagus Has Earned Its Divine Status

Posted April 10, 2018 8:08 p.m. EDT

In Britain, where I live, asparagus is a god among vegetables. It is greeted with real reverence in spring, as if nothing worth eating has been available for months. With a deep sigh of relief at the end of a long winter of roots, cabbages and more roots, we finally spot those fresh green shoots, and everybody is happy.

This may come across as hyperbole, but after more than 20 years living in Britain, I am afraid I have finally caught the bug.

The short season — not much longer than eight weeks — and the notion that this delicacy is something “we” do really well, give asparagus special status here. Yes, tomatoes grow in Britain, but they’ll never be as good as Italian ones, and we all know it. British Brassicas and root vegetables are also excellent, but they are staples for most of the year, breeding a sense of familiarity that often sounds a bit like contempt.

So now I, too, get giddy when the first bundles of local asparagus appear at my local greengrocer in April. I, too, grab them with both hands and throw them into a pot as fast as I can. I, too, start lecturing anyone who will listen about the splendor of our local hero.

Perhaps because of this esteem, I tread lightly when cooking asparagus. It also makes sense, since asparagus is so delicate that it can easily be overwhelmed by neighboring ingredients in a dish. I don’t understand the point of mixing asparagus in a salad with lots of other vegetables, where its marvelous yet subtle flavor is lost in a cacophony.

To celebrate its distinctiveness, I tend to pair asparagus with the classics: eggs, butter, olive oil, cheese, cream, onions, garlic, potatoes. Texture comes from fried bread crumbs or nuts, the most natural for me being mild almonds, which leave the right amount of space for the taste of asparagus. For flavor, acidity is a must. Sometimes tomatoes work, but citrus and vinegar are always my first choice. Recently, I have been using lots of capers because they bring with them both the acidity and the umami notes that benefit asparagus so much.

I also feature it in relatively simple recipes, like roasted asparagus with almonds and capers. This dish offers amazing value in the kitchen. With about 20 minutes and hardly any work, you can put on the table a dish that I would happily serve for a fancy dinner party or in any of my restaurants. If I want to spend a bit more time and bulk up the dish, I serve a similarly flavored asparagus — this time getting my umami kick from anchovies rather than capers — with mashed potatoes. Cooking the potatoes with mint and lemon is my way of infusing them with delicate background notes that asparagus loves to play with. They are definitely there, but not so loud as to overwhelm.

RECIPE:

Lemony Mashed Potatoes with Asparagus, Almonds and Mint

Yield: 6 side-dish servings

Total time: About 35 minutes

Ingredients:

For the potatoes:

1 lemon, preferably organic, scrubbed

About 15 mint sprigs plus 1/4 cup lightly packed shredded mint leaves

5 garlic cloves, peeled

1 1/2 pounds large potatoes (such as Yukon Gold or Désirée), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/3 cup whole milk

Heaping 1/3 cup sour cream

Salt and black pepper

For the asparagus:

2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 3/4 pounds asparagus, woody ends trimmed off

6 anchovy fillets, finely sliced

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/2 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted

1 1/2 teaspoons dried mint

Preparation:

1. Using a peeler, remove the yellow zest from the lemon in large strips. Cut the peeled lemon into six wedges and reserve for serving.

2. Fill a medium saucepan with salted water, add the lemon zest, mint sprigs and garlic, and bring to a boil over high heat. Add potatoes and boil for 15 minutes, or until cooked through.

3. Drain well. Return potatoes, lemon zest and garlic to the pan, discarding the mint sprigs. Add butter, milk, sour cream and 3/4 teaspoon salt and mash until smooth and creamy. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and set aside until ready to serve.

4. Meanwhile, cook the asparagus: In a large skillet, melt the butter and oil over medium-high heat until foaming. Add asparagus and cook, turning frequently, until cooked through but retaining a slight bite, 5 to 8 minutes, depending on thickness. Turn off the heat and use tongs to transfer asparagus to a plate. Add the anchovy, garlic and a pinch of salt to the pan, return to medium heat, and stir continuously until the garlic is starting to turn gold, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in almonds and dried mint, and immediately spoon the mixture into a bowl to stop the cooking.

5. Divide potatoes on serving plates. Top with the asparagus and spoon the buttered almond mixture over the top. Serve at once with a sprinkle of fresh mint and the lemon wedges alongside.

—RECIPE:

Roasted Asparagus With Buttered Almonds, Capers and Dill

Yield: 6 side-dish servings

Total time: About 20 minutes

Ingredients:

1 1/3 pounds asparagus, woody ends trimmed

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and black pepper

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Scant 1/4 cup sliced almonds

3 tablespoons baby capers, patted dry on paper towels

1/4 to 1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh dill

1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl or on a work surface, use your hands or tongs to toss the asparagus with 1 tablespoon oil, a generous pinch of salt and a good grind of pepper. Arrange asparagus in the paper-lined pan, spaced well apart, and roast, shaking the pan occasionally, until asparagus is soft and starting to brown in places, 8 to 12 minutes, depending on thickness. Remove from oven and set aside in the pan.

3. In a small or medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat until foamy. Add almonds and fry, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes (reduce heat as needed to prevent scorching). Pour almonds and butter evenly over asparagus.

4. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the pan and heat over high heat. Once hot, add the capers and fry, stirring continuously, until they have opened up and become crisp, 1 to 2 minutes.

5. Using a slotted spoon, remove capers from the oil and sprinkle over the asparagus. Add dill. Using tongs or two spoons, mix gently to combine, transfer to a large plate and serve warm.