11/03/2011 12:20 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2012


What drives me nuts is when people say they're sick of asparagus because there aren't that many ways to cook it: "It's great steamed," I hear, "but beyond that ... "

A lack of imagination, or experience, or guts. In fact, asparagus is so good on its own because it's so strong-flavored. But that same intensity makes it a joy to treat aggressively. And as much as any vegetable or fruit, asparagus is substantially better when eaten in season than out. That season is now, and it's cause for celebration: Any opportunity to eat big, fat, bright-green spears -- or small, skinny, dark-green spears -- should not be passed up.

When you shop, you want unwrinkled, moist-looking, and of course undamaged asparagus. There was a time I took these standard recommendations a step further and wrote something like "Skinny spears can be ok, but perhaps they're a tad less flavorful than the fat ones, so buy the biggest asparagus you can find."

I no longer believe that. In fact, I think that the differences between fat and skinny asparagus are profound. And treated correctly -- and bought in season, especially locally -- they're equally fine. For example, a roasted, unpeeled, skinny asparagus spear is about as different from a boiled, peeled, fat, asparagus spear as a fried russet potato is from a steamed red bliss. Not better, not worse -- different.

So I have to consider them separately. Fat asparagus spears are undoubtedly more luxurious-looking. They require a tad more work than skinny ones, but, obviously, they provide a more satisfying bite. When you get ready to cook asparagus, any asparagus, you should break or cut off the woody bottoms, usually an inch or maybe a little more.

And there's another step you should take with these big boys, and that is peeling. Not that the peel doesn't have flavor: it does. But it also has a fibrous quality that makes the eating a tad less appealing, and little less perfect than it is otherwise. (The peeling itself is not especially time consuming; use an ordinary vegetable peeler, and don't be too compulsive; lie each spear down on a board, and make a few quick passes from the base of the flower down to the end.)

That done, I think fat spears are best steamed, boiled, microwaved. (Later in the season -- or on gorgeous early spring days -- I grill them; but that's another story.) To steam: stand them up in an inch of water in a covered pot (you need a high pot, and maybe a piece of string to keep them standing all together), and cook until bright green and tender. To boil: lay them down in an inch (or more) of salted water, cover, and cook until ... bright green and tender. To microwave (not more than two servings, really): lay on a plate with a tablespoon or two of water, sprinkle with a little salt, cover (another plate is good), and zap until ... you get the idea.

That done, you can drizzle them with something as lean and mean as oil and lemon (or just oil, or just lemon), or melted butter, or -- if you're feeling like you deserve a super-treat --Hollandaise. Or mushrooms in cream, an old favorite of mine.

You can do any of the above with skinny spears too, and of course they'll cook faster. But what I really, really love to do with pencil-thin spears is pile them into a baking dish and roast them. In fact this is among my favorite dishes of the spring -- fast, easy (no peeling), and readily varied: you can roast the spears with oil and garlic, with ginger and soy sauce (add a little water or sake so the soy sauce doesn't burn), with breadcrumbs, with cheese (blue cheese being best, I think, especially when mixed with some bread crumbs), with milk or cream and butter...and each of these is different, and each fantastic.

There. Do not let me hear you say you're sick of asparagus, at least until you've run through a few of these ideas.

Roasted Skinny Asparagus
Fat Asparagus with Mushrooms and Cream