Editor’s note: Cook Like a Chef is a feature designed to help you master cooking techniques that will give your homemade meals professional style and carefully crafted flavor. Each month, a chef instructor from Cascade Culinary Institute at Central Oregon Community College walks us through a skill or recipe.

’Tis the season for asparagus.

It’s available year-round these days, but spring is the optimum time of year for asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), a member of the lily family.

If you’re in the habit of cooking the popular green stalks the same way, it’s time to cook like a chef to get the most flavor and the best texture out of this vegetable.

Chef Thor Erickson of the Cascade Culinary Institute will take us through the steps to prepare steamed, raw and grilled asparagus. You can also watch him demonstrating his techniques in a video at www.bendbulletin.com.

The key to perfect asparagus is not cooking it too long.

“You want to avoid mushy asparagus. There’s a French term, “à point” (ah PWAH), which means to the point of perfect doneness. It takes some practice to get there. Eat asparagus in its raw state and see what the texture is, and then when you cook it, if it tastes too raw, cook it a little bit more next time,” Erickson said.

If you’ve been reading our Cook Like a Chef series each month, you’re probably realizing that becoming a great cook takes a lot of practice. Try something new, fail or succeed, repeat. Now do it again. Next thing you know, your food at home is looking and tasting much better.

Pick and prep

Asparagus comes in skinny and thick sizes. Erickson prefers to cook thin asparagus.

“I look for the size of pencils; those are the most tender,” he said.

He suggests buying six to eight spears per person.

Since the bottom of the spear is inedible and woody, it’s important to trim them.

“People ask me, ‘How do I know where to cut it?’ Take one spear, and toward the bottom, bend it, and wherever it naturally breaks is the spot. If you want uniformity, break one and cut the others to match,” Erickson said.

Erickson doesn’t peel his asparagus, so you don’t have to either. Just wash it well, soaking the asparagus for a minute or two, and then rinse and shake it off or drain it.

“If you’re preparing the asparagus ahead, wrap the cleaned asparagus in a damp paper towel and put it in a container in the refrigerator. It’s a flower, so treat it like one. You could also put the trimmed, cleaned stalks in a glass in some water and let it stand at room temperature for a few hours,” he said.

Steam it

To steam asparagus, take a medium-size pot and put about 2 inches of water in it. Put a steamer basket inside the pot and bring the water to a boil. Put the asparagus in the basket, and put a lid on the pot.

“For really thin asparagus, you’re going to steam for two minutes; for thicker, it’s three minutes. We’re not making mush. The asparagus needs to maintain its flavor, color and texture. Then serve it right away,” Erickson said.

His favorite way to jazz up simple steamed asparagus is to drizzle it with a little olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper.

“That’s really going to bring out the natural flavor of the asparagus, and you know, you either like asparagus or you don’t, and for those of us who like it, it’s not something we want to cover up. We want to complement it,” Erickson said.

Steamed for salads and …

To add steamed asparagus to a salad, it’s easy. Get a big bowl of ice water ready, and after the asparagus has steamed for one to two minutes, plunge the spears into the ice water bath.

“That’s called ‘shocking’ it. It stops it from cooking any longer, and it’ll be cold, but cooked properly. Shocking maintains the texture and color — so beautifully bright green. Leave it in the ice water for about three minutes, and then take it out and let it drain. Pat it dry, and now the sky’s the limit,” he said.

Cut it into little rounds and add it to a salad or a pasta dish. Serve it as an appetizer with a dipping sauce.

“I like to eat it for breakfast. In asparagus season, I’ll poach an egg. Put five or six spears of asparagus on a plate with the egg on top, a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper, some grated Parmesan cheese or fresh grated lemon zest on top. You don’t need a fancy hollandaise sauce. An egg, poached well, makes a perfect little sauce,” Erickson said.

Raw in a salad

Asparagus is delicious when it’s prepared raw, in a salad.

“If you have a mandolin or if you’re very good with a sharp knife, you could just cut it perpendicular and take little round shavings off each stalk. Or, a little easier — after washing it, take a vegetable peeler down the spears and take ribbons off,” he said.

Toss the raw asparagus rounds or ribbons with any kind of vinaigrette.

“Asparagus is very good with morel mushrooms. It goes well with other things that are coming up at the same time.

“Asparagus is really great with some fresh mint leaves tossed in a salad with a little oil, salt and pepper, and a tiny bit of vinegar sprinkled on.

“Arugula is a great backdrop for asparagus in terms of texture and flavor. Cherry tomatoes: Cut some of those and toss them with asparagus ribbons, a little balsamic vinaigrette,” Erickson riffed.

Let’s hope that the more we cook like a chef, the more our minds think like chefs, making associations, and coming up with combinations of flavors and textures that go together and taste amazing.

Grilled

Asparagus can be grilled outside or on a grill pan inside the oven.

“With grilling, you really get this interesting character. It brings out a little char which, if done right, is really nice,” Erickson said.

Erickson puts a little light oil — such as peanut, avocado or coconut — on his cleaned and trimmed asparagus.

“For 1 pound, that’s about 1 to 2 teaspoons of oil, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Toss it together, heat up the grill really hot, and put the spears on perpendicular to the grates on the grill, or put them in a grill basket.

“It’s one minute per side. It’s pretty quick; otherwise the spears will burn. They’ll go from cooked perfectly to burnt pretty quick. Don’t walk away. When you cook, you have to be in the moment. You’re one of the characters in the show, and you have to be in the show! Be in the moment,” Erickson said.

The finishing touch on something simple like grilled asparagus is what separates the home cooks from the chefs. Step into the professional cook’s world and look at the options Erickson recommends: “If serving grilled asparagus with a lot of food, I’d default to something very utilitarian like lemon juice or some lemon zest. It goes with everything, like grilled chicken or steak.

“You could cut the grilled asparagus on a diagonal and toss it with rice vinegar and a little sesame oil, and serve it over brown rice, instead of with meat. It’s great as a leftover. I often grill asparagus with strips or hunks of red bell peppers. They go together well,” he said.

We hope you enjoy fresh asparagus season. Cook some like a chef by trying a new way of preparing one of spring’s most versatile vegetables, and garnish your dish with something you’ve never tried before.

— Reporter: ahighberger@ mac.com

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