At those simple moments in life when the world seems absolutely right with itself — and you feel lucky to be along for the ride — a funny little thing happens inside your brain. In the blink of an eye, that momentary blip of happiness you get from rediscovering a tulip, or puppy or children at play is anchored to a bit of gray matter, and you become an even better person in the process.
Most of us move past such tiny epiphanies far too quickly. We forget that it's the sum of all those wonderful little vignettes that make us whole.
Which, of course, is where asparagus comes in. In the grand scheme of things, it certainly isn't as essential as world peace. But sitting down to a plate of young, lightly steamed asparagus napped in a lemon-butter sauce can most definitely put a rosy spin on things. And who's to say that the world wouldn't be a better place if more people did exactly that more often?
Particularly this time of year when the quality of asparagus is so high and requires so little effort on your part. Indeed, why tinker with perfection? As long as it's fresh and sweet, the only treatment it needs is a few tenderizing minutes in boiling water and — at the most — a simple, well-seasoned sauce or vinaigrette.
You can alter this approach once the season is past its prime and you aren't in it so much for the art as the flavor. That's when you get cream of asparagus soup. But for now, the fate of your evening meal — and just maybe the world — is in your hands. So don't blow it. Serve asparagus.
Following are some of my basic preparation recommendations for awesome asparagus:
Peel, don't pinch: Although it is traditional to bend the lower portion of each asparagus stalk until it snaps into edible and inedible portions, it isn't necessary and wastes quite a bit of perfectly good stalk. Better to take a vegetable peeler or paring knife and beginning about 3 inches from the tip, gently peel down to the base. With this method, much less of the stalk will have to be cut away; plus, you'll find the entire vegetable cooks more evenly.
Blanch it: Peeled stalks won't need special asparagus cookers that hold the vegetable upright because the stalks cook evenly from tip to base. Fill a large pot or wide frying pan three-fourths full of water, add a teaspoon of salt per quart of water, and bring to a boil. Add the asparagus (either whole stalks or cut into desired lengths), cover just until the water begins to boil again, then remove the lid. Reduce the heat and cook for 4 minutes, then begin testing for doneness. Although it's a matter of taste, I consider asparagus to be done when it's easily pierced by a sharp knife.
Cool it: If you're not using the asparagus immediately, plunge it into cold water to stop the cooking and set the color. Remove it from the water with slotted spoon to a clean towel on a rack; cover and refrigerate until needed. Use this method to blanch asparagus before adding to stir-fry dishes.
Here are some traditional approaches to saucing your lightly cooked asparagus:
Asparagus Flemish: Stir two hard-cooked, sieved eggs and 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice into a half cup of melted butter. Season with a little salt and pepper, dribble it over 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of lightly cooked asparagus spears.
Asparagus Polonaise: For each pound of asparagus, combine two chopped, hard-cooked eggs with 2 tablespoons chopped parsley and sprinkle it over the cooked asparagus. Saute 1/4 cup of bread crumbs in 6 tablespoons of melted butter until the crumbs are golden brown, then pour the sauce over the warm asparagus.
With butter and cheese: Top warm asparagus with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, melted butter and lemon juice to taste. Place under the broiler to give the whole affair a golden blush.
Asparagus Hollandaise: Top warm or chilled asparagus with some homemade hollandaise sauce.
Asparagus Maltaise: Substitute orange juice for water and lemon juice in your basic hollandaise sauce recipe. For maximum flavor, add a squeeze of fresh lemon and finely grated orange zest.
Asparagus with olive oil and lemon: Bring out your most flavorful and treasured bottle of olive oil. Drizzle it over the cooked and warm or chilled asparagus, and add a splash of fresh lemon juice (or white wine vinegar), coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a cookbook author and columnist in Corvallis. Reach her at email@example.com.