A sixty-five-foot long bed of asparagus out behind the house is blasting out spears as we speak. This is its third year, and, after waiting fairly patiently for the requisite two years, during which we allow the plants to get well-established, we are really enjoying the crop. I don’t remember the variety names any more, but one is purple and one is green. The purples turn greenish when I cook them, as many of these purple vegetables do, especially green beans. (Purple cauliflower, which looks so beautiful in the garden, turns a yucky blue-gray after cooking. Too bad.)
A fair number of the asparagus stalks are really big and fat, practically like cigars, and Toby adores those. The challenge is to separate them into piles of similarly-sized stalks so that I can cook them evenly; a small effort considering the reward of stunningly fresh asparagus flavor. I gave up eating off-season asparagus years ago, because it never tasted as good as my own fresh stuff. The flavor of January asparagus resembles the real thing, but is pretty unsatisfactory overall. Same goes for strawberries and melons, by the way. And green beans and broccoli, and…oh, never mind.
Lots of times here in this column, I have said something like, “When in doubt, roast it.” I don’t remember my mother ever roasting vegetables when I was growing up in the 1950s or ‘60s. Or ever, for that matter. My Aunt Marian roasted potatoes with chicken, and I thought that was wonderful. Why my mom didn’t, I’m not sure. Come to think of it, she didn’t use the oven much for fixing dinner; the oven seems to have been largely a storage place for her baking pans which she removed on ceremonial occasions for baking cakes, cookies, and the occasional roast.
There are a few vegetables that don’t roast well. Lettuce, for instance. (Though, I hear, one can grill a whole head of romaine!) Roasting vegetables is terrifically easy and effective. Vegetable flavor intensifies, and you don’t drain away nutrients. Roasted asparagus, as the instructions below show, qualifies as fast food: five to ten minutes.
You can use any olive oil that you like. We splurged a few months ago on lemon-flavored olive oil. It has been worth every cent. A little dribble of that on salad with seasoned rice vinegar takes the old oil-and-vinegar gambit to a whole new place. One set of online instructions I saw for roasting asparagus called for a little sprinkle of lemon zest on the finished spears plus a grating of nutmeg. So the other evening, when we roasted asparagus for guests, Toby said, “How about using the lemon olive oil on this?” I agreed instantly, and was that ever good! I never got around to the nutmeg, so that will be for another time.
Basic roasting instructions follow. If you want, after the roasting step, add some garnish to punch up the flavor a bit. Use lemon zest and/or juice, a dribble of balsamic vinegar, sprinkle of nutmeg, paprika, celery salt, coarse salt, or parmesan.
Asparagus spears, similarly-sized, woody ends trimmed
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Lightly oil a baking pan, and arrange the spears in a single layer. Brush the spears lightly with oil. Roast for five minutes. Remove the pan, lightly turn the spears, and replace in the oven for three minutes, or until the asparagus is as tender as you like. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to serve, or garnish to taste.