Asparagus cooks in a snap and needs little more than butter and salt to make it shine. And while I like the nuttiness that roasting brings to asparagus, it’s also nice to pay homage to spring by preserving its bright green color and grassy flavor. Steaming is one way to accomplish this, but I’ve never found the method entirely satisfying; it tends to wash out the vegetable’s already delicate flavor and leave the spears wet and plain-tasting.
How about sautéing the asparagus in butter? The fat would thoroughly coat the spears and add flavor, and if I was careful about moving the asparagus around the pan, I could prevent browning. First, I trimmed the ends from 2 pounds of asparagus and peeled the spears’ bottom halves. (This results in less waste than snapping off the woody parts; see “Don’t Snap Asparagus; Peel It.”) To fit the spears in the pan, I cut them on the bias into 2-inch lengths. I then melted butter in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and added the asparagus.
As long as I stirred frequently, the pieces ended up uniformly bright green. However, they were unevenly cooked—some had the crisp-tender texture I wanted, while others were still crunchy. What if I added a little water to the pan to allow them to steam, so they cooked through more evenly, but not so much that the added liquid washed away flavor? If I allowed the water to evaporate, no flavor would be lost at all.
I melted a tablespoon of butter in the skillet, added a couple of tablespoons of water and some salt (another downside of conventional steaming is that you can’t season as you cook), and covered the pan. After 2 minutes, the asparagus was bright green but still crunchy. I removed the lid and stirred occasionally until the pan was almost dry and the pieces were crisp‑tender, which took about another 2 minutes.
This pan-steamed asparagus tasted great, but garlic would make it a little more interesting. I added a minced clove after I removed the lid, but it clumped since there wasn’t much fat in the pan. Next, I tried adding the garlic along with the water and salt. This helped the garlic distribute more evenly, and it cooked just enough to lose its raw edge.
I loved the dish’s ease and simplicity, so I set about creating a few variations that were just as quick and uncomplicated. Now I can celebrate the season with a variety of interesting asparagus dishes, all cooked in mere minutes.