Note: You may know Carolyn Cope as Umami Girl. She stops by on Tuesdays with ideas on preparing fruits and vegetables. —The Mgmt.
Flipping through my old flame The Zuni Cafe Cookbook for asparagus inspiration this weekend, I found instead a heaviness in my heart. I admire the tremendous attention to detail that pushes simple ingredients to the brink of perfection at Zuni and the generosity with which Judy Rogers shares her methods in the book. What a feat to pour so much mindfulness and soulfulness into every meal. I would like nothing more than to cook that way all the time.
Instead, reality: the relentless motion of the days, the great plurality of little mouths, noisy and hungry, predictable only in their chaos. It leaves little room for the undivided attention required to feed and be fed with such purpose. We do our best to source carefully, to cook lovingly, to eat with our eyes on our food and each other. We all love to eat, and we try--I'd guess much harder than average--to make it count.
But some days, I'm struck by nothing more than the often-thankless monotony, the endless, dulling compromise, of cooking for a busy family. I suspect a lot of us have been there for a week or a month over time, or maybe landed there for years. To have one foot planted there and one aiming, however inaccurately, toward the heights of culinary accomplishment, doesn't give you the strongest foundation.
Don't get me wrong. To have people to feed, and any food at all to feed them, is a crazy-generous gift. It's just that it requires a fair measure of strength and bravery to use it. It's sort of like having been given the gift of skydiving lessons. And it's sort of exactly the opposite.
Cooking for the plurality means pouring your shards and scraps of divided attention into methods that benefit from periods of distraction (marinating, anyone?) and accepting flickers of thanks the same way--in hearty, fleeting smiles, inches grown, and seconds requested.
So rather than gleaming white asparagus sliced lengthwise on a mandoline with fresh porcini, I now serve marinated, grilled asparagus sprinkled with a kid crack of buttery, toasted breadcrumbs. It's adult crack, too, so it's all good. My mom passed this little parenting secret on to me through years of dedicated use, and it's only fair for me to share it now with you.
Infused with lemon and garlic, lightly charred on the outside, almost creamy on the inside, and flecked with salty, buttery crunch, it might just be enough to change your definition of accomplishment for good.
Grilled Asparagus with Buttery Breadcrumbs
- 1.5 pounds asparagus
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt, divided
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup dry breadcrumbs
- 1 clove garlic, crushed with a chef's knife
Wash, dry and trim off the woody bottom portion of the asparagus.
In a large zip-top plastic bag (if you're an earth murderer like me) or a long, shallow dish, combine the olive oil, vinegar, lemon zest and juice, mustard, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and the pepper, and crushed clove of garlic. Add the asparagus and toss to coat. Marinate at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, or in the fridge for as long as you like.
Heat a grill or grill pan to medium-high. Grill the asparagus, turning once, for about 2 to 3 minutes per side, until nicely charred.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the breadcrumbs and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring often, until the crumbs take on an amber color and smell like you couldn't possibly resist eating them by the spoonful. Serve the asparagus with crumbs sprinkled overtop.