My father really likes canned asparagus for some reason. He’s a sick man. We ate it a lot when I was growing up, and I couldn’t stand it. At one meal, we had canned asparagus and salmon croquettes together on the plate. I thought the gates of hell would open up. I never had fresh asparagus until junior high, and then I thought, “Hey, this is actually really good if you don’t cook the piss out of it.” When it’s fresh and in season, asparagus has a clean, grassy flavor. Do yourself a favor and don’t make this dish in the dead of winter. The only asparagus you can get then will be flown in from Peru, and it will never taste above subpar. This dish has to start with fresh spring asparagus or it loses its luster. The asparagus is blanched and shocked (see page 7), so it’s cooked but not cooked for very long. Early in my career, the French guys I worked for hammered it into my head that asparagus should always be crisp and tender. A knife pierced through the asparagus should go all way through, but not without a little resistance. If you pinch it and it squishes flat, it’s overdone. The exact cooking time will vary depending on the freshness and density of your asparagus. When in doubt, undercook it. The asparagus marinates in olive oil with lemon, basil, and garlic and is served cold with a crumble of feta cheese. It’s super simple. And completely delicious.
Feeds 8 as a side dish
Olive oil – about 2 cups
Fresh basil – 2 tablespoons small leaves + a few for garnish
Garlic – 2 cloves, thinly sliced
Lemon – 1 fat one
Asparagus – 1 pound, trimmed of woody ends
Salt – preferably coarse
Feta cheese – 4 ounce block, about 1/2 cup crumbled
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Pour the oil into a loaf pan or 1-quart casserole dish. Add the basil leaves to the oil along with the garlic. Using a Microplane zester, zest half the lemon directly into the oil. Using a vegetable peeler, strip 2 large pieces of the peel into the oil; make sure you leave a little peel on the lemon.
2. Drop the asparagus in the boiling water for 1 minute. Use tongs to pull the asparagus from the water and tap the tongs on the side of the pot to shake off any excess water. Lay the asparagus in the dish with the oil. The asparagus should be completely submerged; add a little more oil if you need to. Wrap the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold, about 4 hours.
3. Pull the asparagus from the oil and arrange in a single layer on a serving platter. Sprinkle with salt and a tiny squeeze of lemon juice. Grate or crumble the feta over the asparagus and garnish with a few basil leaves and a grating of lemon zest.