Early in the spring, a fern sends forth shoots that, if left to grow, would become lacy fronds as tall as the gardener, but these tender stalks are harvested young, bundled together and brought to our tables as a fresh side dish or ingredient in soups and salads, as asparagus spears.
The slender green vegetable has a strong, pungent flavor and heady aroma that microwave preparation enhances without washing out. If all you are familiar with is the chartreuse, mushy substance that is marked “pieces and stems,” start from fresh and experience the true taste and texture of this treat.
Asparagus spears are harvested at a uniform length for ease of packaging and transport, but the entire stalk isn’t intended to be consumed. Unwrap the bundle of fresh spears and hold it with the cut end pointing up. Snap off the woody end with a firm grip in both hand, and the tender part will break away. If you cut the ends off with a knife, it’s impossible to tell where the fibrous part ends and the tender part begins.
The inch-long leftovers can be used fresh (or frozen and used later) as part of a vegetable stock for soups but need to be fished out or pureed before using the broth.
Rinse the tender spears under running water or soak in a basin, to remove any sand or grit. Put a shallow layer, a couple of tablespoons at most, of salted water in a microwave-safe round glass pie pan. The asparagus will not need to be covered with water, because it will as much steam as actually boil.
Set up a large bowl to be used for a water bath. If you are serving asparagus hot, it will need to be room temperature water. If the spears will be cut up in a salad or served cold, it needs to be ice water.
Place all of the rinsed and drained asparagus in a large shallow baking pan or casserole dish and sprinkle with the following:
Coarse (kosher or sea) salt
Fresh-ground black pepper
Powdered garlic and onion.
Arrange the seasoned spears in a circle around the pie pan, like spokes on a wagon wheel, with the tips at the center. Place a few small pats of butter strategically around the platter and put it in the center of the microwave.
On full power, cook the asparagus spears for 2 minutes at first. Then, using kitchen tongs, turn them over a half rotation. Cook another two minutes. Check for preferred doneness after every two-minute interval, with most diners falling somewhere around an eight- to 10-minute cooking time in total.
Asparagus will continue to cook, so it needs to be finished off in the water bath. Plunge the cooked asparagus in, just for a quick dip if it needs to stay hot or left to chill for a cold dish. The water bath locks in that deep verdant color and crisp texture.
The classic way to serve spears of asparagus is with a rich, creamy Hollandaise sauce, which can also be prepared in the microwave, with a little finesse. Try this recipe from cooks.com. Arrange the spears on a plate and slather a creamy spoonful of this yolky sauce over a perfectly prepared side dish that pairs well with rice and fish dishes.