Getting the best out of thick asparagus
By Melissa Clark
When I was a kid, my father planted asparagus in a sunny corner of our Brooklyn backyard.
He was an optimistic urban gardener, despite a long list of failed crops: apricots eaten by rogue squirrels; corn that withered in its husk; white eggplant that might have been the first grown in Flatbush had they not succumbed to blossom-end rot.
But the asparagus survived, for a few years anyway. Come spring, as soon as the first skinny stalks peeked out above the ferns, we cut and ate them slathered in butter and lemon. Sweet, crisp and very juicy, they were completely unlike the fat ones my parents would get at the store, with woody stems that needed peeling before their stint in the dedicated asparagus steamer.
The deliciousness of our skinny homegrown spears made me wrongly believe that thin asparagus was superior to thicker asparagus. For years, I turned up my nose at anything wider than a knitting needle.
And that was my loss. What made our Brooklyn asparagus so good wasn’t its size, but its freshness.
Which is to say, both thick and thin asparagus have their places in the kitchen, and the fresher they are, the better. The tips should be tightly closed and flat against the stalks, like rosebuds before they even think about opening into flowers. The bottoms of the stems should be satiny and plump, without browning or obvious dehydration. When they’re truly fresh, you don’t even need to peel the fat ones. (Never peel the skinny ones, or there won’t be anything left to eat.) Just snap or trim off the tough ends, give them a rinse, and they’re ready to go.
Thicker asparagus are especially wonderful roasted, so the tips crisp and the flavors condense. In this recipe, they have a distinct advantage over their pencil-thin cousins: They’ll roast in the same time it takes slivers of leeks strewn on top to turn golden brown.
I also threw some capers in the pan for a briny character that contrasts all the leek-and-asparagus sweetness. Capers also make an appearance in the mustard sauce served alongside, which adds a tangy, mayonnaise-like richness to the plate.
My parents served asparagus as a first course all by itself, or alongside the brisket at our Passover table. As we knew from our short-lived garden patch, there are few vegetables more evocative of spring.
Roasted asparagus with crispy leeks and capers
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
Total time: 20 minutes
For the asparagus:
1 pound thick asparagus, ends trimmed
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 large leek, white and light green parts, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons drained capers
Lemon wedges, for serving
1/4 cup parsley, leaves and tender stems, torn
For the Mustard Sauce:
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons drained capers, finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, finely grated or minced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Put asparagus on a rimmed sheet pan and toss with 1 tablespoon oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt until well coated.
2. In a small bowl, stir together leeks, remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Sprinkle leeks on top of asparagus, then sprinkle with capers. Roast until asparagus are tender and golden brown, about 12 to 18 minutes.
3. While the asparagus stalks roast, make the mustard sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together mustard, capers and garlic. Slowly whisk in olive oil a few drops at a time to create a thick, emulsified dressing. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Once asparagus stalks are out of the oven, squeeze a lemon wedge over it and sprinkle parsley on top. Serve with mustard sauce and more lemon wedges on the side.