‘Tis the season for asparagus. The reedy green veggie offers a satisfying textural combination of crispness and tenderness with a light woody, grassy flavor that’s great on its own, but also harmonizes quite well with a rich, heavy entree.
For tips and tricks when it comes to all things asparagus, we picked the brain of Cortney Burns, acclaimed chef, one-woman preservation society, and co-author of the 2014 James Beard award–winning cookbook “Bar Tartine.”
Her long-awaited follow-up, “Nourish Me Home,” (which will be released in June) offers an in-depth dive into farm-to-table cooking for all seasons. Below, Burns shares her expert advice when it comes to all things asparagus, an ingredient that pops up frequently in the book including in her stunning Vernal Equinox Salad (check out the recipe below).
Nourish Me Home: 125 Soul-Sustaining, Elemental Recipes, $35 on Amazon
You can pre-order Burns' newest cookbook now.
When Is the Best Time to Buy Asparagus?
If you’re reading this in the spring, NOW. And if you can purchase your spears farm fresh, all the better. “Asparagus can lose a lot of its nutrition the longer it’s away from the soil,” Burns notes.
Related Reading: 7 Online Produce Delivery Options
What Do You Look for When Purchasing Asparagus?
Asparagus tends to be pricier than other vegetables so you want to ensure you’re buying the best bunch possible. “Look for moist ends, taut spears and lively tips,” Burns advises. These traits will tell you the asparagus is in peak condition. If it’s already sagging at the market, it’s not going to perk up when you bring it home.
What’s the Best Way to Store Asparagus?
You could always throw asparagus in the refrigerator crisper as you would other vegetables, but there’s a better and easy way to keep your spears in their prime. Burns likes to preserve hers upright in a glass with a bit of water. Though you can keep them viable for a few days, she recommends consuming them as soon as quickly as possible for “maximum nutrient density.”
What Part of the Asparagus Should You Use?
All of it, according to Burns. “I snap the stalks wherever they feel a bit woody,” she says. “The spear will dictate that for you. Just slowly feel your way down to the bottom and you’ll notice when the rest of the length toughens and snaps apart easily.” As for that tough, stringy bottom section of asparagus, don’t discard it. It can be used to make broths, soups, and even juice.
What’s the Best Method to Prepare Asparagus?
“Asparagus is great raw, charred, steamed, grilled or sautéed,” says Burns. “It takes well to any cooking method really.” But generally, she prefers to keep things simple. “Not much cooking really needs to happen. Just a little heat to coax out some more of its inherent sugars.”
Related Reading: 11 Healthy Asparagus Recipes to Celebrate This Spring
Does Size Matter?
Burns is a fan of both thick and thin asparagus but if a recipe calls for more heat (think roasting or charring), bigger is better. “They will have a perfect raw-to-cooked ratio when you serve them,” she says.
Opposites attract, and asparagus and fat could be one of the culinary world’s oddest couplings. For a fantastic way to start your morning, grab some eggs and go to town. Get creative, Burns urges. “Explore unctuous sauces against their verdant charm.”
Related Reading: How Long Do Eggs Last?
An Asparagus Salad Recipe from Cortney Burns
Vernal Equinox Salad
Reprinted from Nourish Me Home by Cortney Burns with permission by Chronicle Books, 2020
The name of this salad can be a bit misleading since many of the ingredients are not ready when the spring equinox hits. But it is about this time that I start stirring, ready to shed winter’s clasp, and start craving this salad in anticipation of spring. During the darker, colder months, pea and sunflower sprouts grown indoors help hint at the grassiness that awaits, so when the first asparagus and radishes arrive at the markets, I fold everything into a bright salad. While most everything is left raw, a few cooked elements keep me cozy during the final cool weeks.
Vernal Equinox Salad
- 2 tablespoons plus ¾ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for cooking
- 4 eggs, at room temperature
- 3 cups cooked or drained canned beans, such as garbanzo or cannellini
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 fennel bulbs, halved
- 4 tablespoons grapeseed oil
- 1 pound asparagus, trimmed
- 1 bunch radishes, such as French Breakfast or Cherry Bomb
- Sorrel-Anchovy Vinaigrette (recipe below)
- 4 ounces sunflower greens or pea shoots
- Toasted sunflower seeds, dill leaves, and Dry Fennel Seed Capers (recipe below) for garnish
- Fill a medium saucepan with 2 quarts of water and 2 tablespoons of the salt. Meanwhile, make an ice bath in a large bowl. Bring the pot of water to a rolling boil, then gently lower the eggs into the water and cook for 6½ minutes. Drain, then immediately transfer to the ice bath. Once the eggs are completely cool, peel. (Soft-boiled eggs can be made up to 1 or 2 days ahead; just wait to peel until you’re ready to serve.)
- Rinse the beans well. In a medium bowl, toss to combine with 6 tablespoons of the olive oil, the lemon juice, the remaining ¾ teaspoon of salt, the red pepper flakes, and lemon zest; season with pepper. Allow the beans to marinate at room temperature while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F. Trim away any brown bits or tough outer layers of the fennel bulbs. Reserve half of 1 bulb and cut the others into quarters, then halve, leaving the core intact all the while. Gently toss to coat with 3 tablespoons of the grapeseed oil.
- Cut the reserved half fennel bulb into very thin slices, about 1⁄8 inch thick. Slice a quarter of the asparagus into similarly thin coins, followed by a quarter of the radishes (it’s best to halve them lengthwise first so they lie evenly on the cutting board). In a medium bowl, toss the sliced vegetables with just enough vinaigrette to coat, about ¼ cup, and set aside.
- Set a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat or prepare a grill with a medium flame. When the pan is almost smoking, add the remaining asparagus, working in batches so the spears don’t crowd the pan. When they’re lightly browned in places but still firm and bright green, remove from the skillet or grill, season with salt, and set aside; when cool enough to handle, cut into 2 to 3 inch pieces.
- Halve the remaining radishes lengthwise and toss them with the remaining 1 tablespoon of grapeseed oil. Cook in the same skillet, flat-side down, giving them a gentle press with your spatula to encourage even browning. After 2 to 3 minutes, while still al dente but warmed through, remove them from the pan and season with salt.
- Working in batches, arrange each of the slices of oil-tossed fennel in the hot skillet so they’re not crowded. Cook until deeply golden with frizzled edges and tender interiors, about 2 minutes per side.
- Set an ovenproof skillet over medium heat until it’s warm. Spread the beans in an even layer and warm them for about 30 seconds. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook until warmed through and creamy, 5 to 10 minutes. Use the back of a spoon to coarsely mash half of the beans, then fold in the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
- To serve, spread the warm beans over individual plates or on the bottom of a platter, then top with the thinly sliced raw vegetables, sunflower greens and seeds, dill, and fennel seed capers. Arrange the browned asparagus, radishes, and fennel over the top and gently tear the eggs in half, tucking each half around the vegetables. Salt the runny yolks and finish with olive oil. Serve immediately.
SPRING Swap snap peas for the asparagus.
SUMMER Swap tomatoes for the radishes and zucchini for the asparagus.
AUTUMN Swap roasted beets for the radish, and cooked and raw turnips for the asparagus
WINTER Swap cooked sweet potato for the radish and wilted kale for the asparagus.
- 2 cups lightly packed sorrel leaves
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup lightly packed dill leaves
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons honey
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 6 oil-packed anchovy fillets
- 1 garlic clove
- Combine the sorrel, oil, dill, lemon juice, honey, salt, pepper, anchovies, and garlic in a blender and purée until very smooth.
Dry Fennel Seed Capers