Thursday, December 15, 2011

Vegging Out: Asparagus

I grew up as a very picky eater.  Meat, corn, and potatoes were my primary food groups.  If my parents wanted me to eat vegetables, Chinese food was really their best bet (Mongolian beef was just too good to deal with sorting through onions and peppers).  My palate didn’t really develop until I went to college and became responsible for buying my own food on a regular basis.  The offering of free food, even if it was just a veggie tray, was the catalyst to my new herbivorous life.

"Broccoli?  No, I'm okay... Oh, it's free?  Yeah, I'll have some."

But even after college there were some veggies that I wasn’t too excited about eating.  Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and any non-fried rice varietal of peas were still on the “No, thank you” list.  It wasn’t until after college while visiting family back home when I had my first truly great experience with asparagus.  My brother had just finished grilling up some BBQ chicken (another staple, another post) and we still had some hot coals, so he threw on some asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper.  They turned out crispy and flavorful with just enough char to remind me that I was eating something cooked over an open flame.

So, I’m going to share with you guys how my family does grilled asparagus.

Why am I only writing about how to grill one single vegetable that isn’t even in season?  Because it’s been raining all week and hard rain is the only weather I don’t like to grill in.

First, grab your rain coat and go preheat your grill to high.

Then, gather up the ingredients:

       One bunch of asparagus (the thinner, the better)
       Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
       Kosher Salt

Rinse the asparagus under running water.  Keep the bottom rubber band on and snap off 2-3 spears.  Cut the entire bunch in line with the shortest snapped spear (if it’s crazy short, then just break off another one).  Discard the bottoms.  

You could save the asparagus bottoms to perk-up your vegetable stock, but this is a grilling blog and I promise we will never be working with vegetable stock.

If you have extra time, you can now submerge the cut spears into a 9x9 pan full of ice water for 10-30 minutes.  This helps to keep the asparagus extra crisp even after it’s been grilled.  While this really does help, the beauty of grilled asparagus is that it is so quick to prepare.  I honestly never do this, but my brother does, and it’s great.

Dry off the asparagus and put them into a dry 9x9.  Put in 1-2 tablespoons the olive oil and toss to coat.  Since I hardly ever use oil to grill my meats, I allow myself to use a little extra on my vegetables to give them more flavor.  I always do about 1.5 tablespoons, but I’ll go up to 2 if the asparagus is pretty thick.

After the spears are coated, sprinkle on salt and pepper to taste.  I usually put on a pretty generous amount of salt—maybe ½ teaspoon per bunch?  I’m just guessing on that. Toss again to coat.

Clean the grill grates and put the spears on the very hot grill perpendicular to the grates, making sure every spear is making full contact with the grill.

Grill them for 3-4 minutes and taste one to see how they’re doing.  They should still be slightly crisp, but not too crunchy or raw.  If it’s cold outside or your asparagus is really thick, it might take up to 8 minutes.  This asparagus only took 4 minutes.

You will lose a spear or two.  If you don't, then you're either lucky or trying too hard.

You can turn them half-way through, but this greatly increases your risk of losing more asparagus to the fiery pits below.  I usually only turn them when I have particularly thick spears.

There are different ways to turn asparagus.  Some choose to go straight down with a pair of tongs, grab a bunch, lift, and drop.  Some use the edge of their tongs or spatula to roll them, like you might roll a column of hotdogs.  I prefer the lift and drop method, despite it being a higher risk move.

A note about timing:  Since it takes such little time, grilling the asparagus should be the very last thing you do before you're ready to eat.  I usually grill all of my meat first, take the meat inside to rest, and then return to put on the asparagus.  By the time the asparagus is done, the meat has usually finished resting.  You want to eat the asparagus quickly because it cools down pretty fast.

While I’ll still eat peas only when I absolutely have to, asparagus is now one of my favorite foods and has a permanent spot in the regular rotation of dinner veggies.  If there are any vegetables that you don’t like, you might be surprised what olive oil, salt, and a grill can do to change your mind.

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