Asparagus has been a delicious symbol of spring since at least as far back as the Greeks, who called it asparagos -- literally, "to spring up." But however it is spelled, it makes me happy.
Most grocers sell asparagus in a range of sizes, from thin and willowy to thick and stocky. Whatever the size, look for stalks that are firm and smooth from top to bottom, with tight, un-feathery tips. Also check that the grocer stored it properly, because asparagus is quite perishable. It should be stored stem down in ice or a bit of water.
Once you get the asparagus home, arrange the stalks standing on their bottoms in a glass jar filled with 1/2 inch of water, or in a zip-close plastic bag with damp paper towel wrapped around the bottoms of the stems. And try to eat your beautiful asparagus within a day or two of purchase, when it's still at its peak of freshness.
When it comes to prepping asparagus, I have one rule: If the stem is more than 1/3 inch thick, it must be peeled. Doing so ensures the spear will cook evenly. If you don't peel it, you'll overcook the tip before the stem becomes tender. Another reason to lose the peel on a thick stalk is that it's tough.
If, however, it strikes you as wasteful to lose those peels, you can gather them up (along with the tough bottoms of the stalks, which you also need to discard) and simmer them in chicken or vegetable broth to make a clear and flavorful asparagus soup.
Once prepped, there are any number of delicious ways to cook asparagus. To start, there's the old tried and true -- briefly boiling or steaming the spears, then topping them with butter or vinaigrette. Simple and wonderful. It also can be grilled, broiled or roasted at high heat, all of which amplify its natural sugars. By the way, I think it is asparagus' natural sweetness that persuades usually veggie-averse children to make an exception.
In this case, though, I've moved asparagus from the side to the center of the plate in the form of a one-pot Asian main course. You'll want to have all the ingredients prepped and lined up on the counter before you start because once you get rolling everything goes into the pan very quickly. The actual cooking time is scarcely 10 minutes.
You begin by pan-searing the raw spears in a hot pan to get a little color on them, adding shiitake mushrooms and shrimp, then flavoring it all with ginger, garlic, chili slices and oyster sauce. Serve it with a side of brown rice or your favorite whole grain and you're good to go.
Pan-Seared Asparagus with Shrimp, Shiitakes and Chilies
Start to finish: 40 minutes. Servings: 4.
1 pound (about 1 bunch) asparagus, tough ends discarded
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
5 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, caps cut into quarters (or sixths if caps are large)
1 pound large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 small red or green chili, such as a jalapeno or serrano, seeds and ribs discarded if desired, thinly sliced
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Cooked brown rice, to serve
If the asparagus stalks are very thick, use a vegetable peeler to shave off the thick skins starting just below the tip and down to the bottom. Cut the stalks into angled 1/2-inch pieces.
In a large skillet over high, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil. When the oil is almost smoking, add all of the asparagus and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium-high and saute the asparagus, stirring, until it is crisp tender and golden at some of the edges, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer the asparagus to a bowl and set aside.
Return the skillet to the heat and add another tablespoon of the oil, the shiitakes and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium and saute the mushrooms, stirring, until they are barely tender and golden around some of the edges, about 3 minutes. Transfer the shiitakes to the bowl with the asparagus.
Return the skillet to the heat and add the remaining tablespoon of the oil and the shrimp. Saute the shrimp, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger and chili and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
In a bowl whisk together the broth, oyster sauce and cornstarch. Add the mixture to the skillet, whisking, and bring to a boil. Return the asparagus and the mushrooms to the skillet and simmer for 1 minute. To serve, spoon a mound of rice onto each of 4 plates, then top with a quarter of the asparagus and shrimp mixture.
Nutrition information per serving: 270 calories; 110 calories from fat (41 percent of total calories); 12 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 170 mg cholesterol; 14 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 27 g protein; 500 mg sodium.