Whenever I grab a bunch of fresh asparagus, I'm almost always tempted to blanch it, a method that preserves and heightens the asparagus's sweetness and intense green flavor...unless I'm cooking outdoors, in which case I'm likely to toss the spears on a grill. There's a downside to those habits, because it means I almost always forget one of the best techniques for asparagus: sautéing it.
Cooking the asparagus in a hot skillet with just a little oil gives it a deep, woodsy, roasted flavor, with a slight smoky char. There's not much to doing it, as long as you keep your pan smoking-hot and move the stalks around frequently enough that they sear and char in spots without burning. It's best to cook the asparagus in batches small enough to ensure all the stalks are in contact with the pan at once; otherwise, they're prone to steaming, not browning. This is a great time to pull out a heavy-duty cast iron, carbon steel, or thick-gauge stainless steel skillet—lots of heat retention to keep things cooking.
I love to do this with whole spears of asparagus. You could cut them up, which would make tossing and stirring easier, but there's a beauty and charm to those long, slender stalks, blistered and browned. With a pair of tongs, it's not too much trouble to push the asparagus around and, perhaps more importantly, rotate them so that all sides spend some quality time with that searing-hot metal. Warning, though: If you do this right, it will get smoky in your kitchen.
It's worth keeping in mind that if your asparagus has very thick stalks, you may need to lower the heat during cooking, particularly if you notice that they're very well browned but still raw in the center.
I find that some stalks inevitably finish sooner than others, so I just pluck them out one by one with tongs as they're ready. You want them seared on the outside and tender within, but not totally limp—fresh spring asparagus is best cooked this way when it still has some bite left in it.
For this recipe, I made a caraway-yogurt sauce to drizzle over the asparagus, which I did by coarsely grinding some caraway seeds, then quickly cooking them with thyme in a bit of olive oil to bloom their flavors. I used the same pan the asparagus had just come out of, simply wiping it clean between uses.
Then I stirred the caraway-thyme oil into the yogurt, adding just a little lemon zest for a bright, citrusy aroma, and spooned it on top.
Blanching and grilling can wait—it's time to take pan-roasted asparagus for a spin instead.
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