It must be the inner grandma in me that has a thing for unfancy food. I love people’s enthusiasm for ingredient discoveries – smoked paprika! za’atar! pomegranate molasses! – but at heart I’m more of a basics girl than an accessories girl. Fresh ingredients don’t need a lot of dressing up, and my favorite preparations are the simplest ones.
Take this stovetop asparagus, for example. When I make asparagus for a crowd, it’s easiest to roast pounds of asparagus on big baking trays in the oven. But when I make a single bunch, it’s faster and easier to cook it on the stovetop, where I can combine the flavor of a saute with the tenderness of steam cooking.
I start by giving the asparagus a quick turn in hot olive oil, then add a bit of water to make steam. Cover the skillet, and in a couple of minutes the asparagus is bright green and gently tender. To finish, a good seasoning of salt, pepper and a wee touch of soy sauce bring out the full sweetness and flavor of these spring favorites. This saute-steam technique works equally well for other firm vegetables, such as broccoli or cauliflower.
It did occur to me that “stovetop asparagus” is not the most compelling name for a recipe. But unlike the wonderfully creative Deb of Smitten Kitchen, who wants to inspire people beyond the mundane food of daily life, I don’t want food here to be aspirational. The last thing I want is for people to come here and think, “Wow, it’s great that she can make such awesome food.” If people come here and think, “For Pete’s sake, I can do that.” and then actually do it – that for me is success.
My mom always boiled asparagus when I was growing up – a method learned from her American host mom in college – and the one advantage of boiling is that it eliminates the unfortunate aftereffects of eating the vegetable. It also also confirms for me that compounds from vegetables do leach into water when vegetables are cooked in it.
My mom always needed a lemony mayonnaise dip to liven up the bland boiled vegetable. But this well-seasoned stovetop asparagus has plenty of flavor on its own.
I like to buy asparagus that is thick enough for flavor – the very thin spears lack the sweetness of the thicker ones – but not so thick that I have to peel it. But most important is to buy the freshest you can find. Thinner spears will cook more quickly, and thicker ones will need a bit more steaming time.
Some will say you should break the asparagus to trim it. But it seems to me that more breaks off than is really necessary. So to avoid waste, I just cut off the tough end of the spear and let my diners leave behind any ends that are not tender enough to consume.
Trim away any mushy tips, like this one.
Heat olive oil in a skillet.
When the oil is hot, add asparagus.
Turn the asparagus (tongs are useful here) and cover for a few minutes.
Add a bit of water and cover again.
In a couple of minutes, test for doneness by spearing a thick end with a fork (it should poke through easily) or – preferably – by eating a spear.
Season well with salt and pepper.
A touch of soy sauce really adds depth of flavor without tasting like soy sauce at all – a trick, by the way, picked up from my Irish-German mother-in-law in Ohio (thanks, Patti!). But she’d also tell you that garlic salt makes it even better – so you can try that, too.
Now for Pete’s sake, wasn’t that easy? Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
This saute-steam method is fast, easy, and combines the flavor of a saute with the tenderness of steam cooking. A touch of soy sauce adds depth of flavor without tasting at all like soy sauce.
- 1 bunch asparagus, about a pound (I like to buy spears thick enough for flavor, but not so thick that I need to peel them)
- 2-3 tablespoons good olive oil
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- Rinse asparagus and trim off woody ends.
- Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. When oil is hot, add asparagus to pan (careful of hot oil splatters). Toss spears briefly with tongs before covering skillet. Wait (about 3 minutes for spears of medium thickness).
- Uncover skillet and toss spears again with tongs. Add water and cover again. If spears are getting brown, turn heat to low. Wait again (about 2 minutes for spears of medium thickness). Uncover and test for doneness (eat a spear or pierce a thick end with a fork – it should poke through easily). Cover again for a minute if needed. Or if the asparagus is done but you still have water in the pan, simply turn the heat up to evaporate it away.
- Add soy sauce and toss asparagus. Season well with salt and pepper. Taste and adjust as necessary. It’s well seasoned when you want to keep eating more.
- Remove asparagus to a plate for serving. Don’t leave in pan, or it will overcook from the residual heat.
- For variation, add fresh garlic to the olive oil just before the asparagus. Or use garlic salt instead of regular. A sprinkle of balsamic vinegar is also nice, or of course grated Parmesan over the hot asparagus.
- This saute-steam method also works well for other firm vegetables, such as broccoli or cauliflower.
Here’s the link to a printable version.