Asparagus is an icon. It is green, it is fresh, and it is bitter, sweet, and slightly grassy all at once. Really good, seasonal asparagus does not need much cooking. In fact, too much heat can wreck its more delicate qualities.
Completely raw asparagus is, of course, not quite right either. Without some tempering, its grassy flavour can be too pronounced, leaving you feeling like you are snacking on lawn clippings rather than a delicious seasonal treat.
So when my friend Farmer Dan posted a pic of lemon-marinated asparagus to his Instagram stories, I was intrigued. Rather than blanching the stalks and then coating them with a mixture of oil and acid, he kept it much simpler. I reached out to learn more about his method — mainly to find out whether or not he blanched — and he was nice enough to explain his nearly all-acid marinade:
I did not blanch. Just added rice vinegar and/or lemon juice salt and pepper, [and] thinly sliced shallot or garlic. After a few days in the marinade the shallot flavour became very strong. No oil. Only added oil at cooking time. It stayed quite crunchy even after days. Seared them on a ripping hot skillet without moving them until warm browned on one side. Stayed nice and crunchy.
When I tried Dan’s method, I found that the acid tenderized the asparagus much like a quick blanch would, only without any heat. After a full day, the stalks were still quite crisp, but not so crisp that they were unpleasant to munch on; after two days, they were perfectly tender-crisp, with a pronounced shallot flavour. They maintained this texture and flavour until they were all gone (about four days).
The toothsome crunch and tart flavour reminded me of quick pickles, albeit much, much slower, so I started calling them “slow pickles.” You can eat them raw in salads, which I have been doing, or you can cook them quickly over high heat like Dan does. Both are very good options. The beauty of this prep method is that your asparagus is always ready for anything — just grab it as you need it.
To make this marinated spring treasure, chop your asparagus into 2-5 cm pieces (or smaller, if you like) then toss ‘em in a freezer bag with your marinade and let everyone get to know each other for at least 24 hours. The exact amounts of each ingredient are kind of up to you, but I’d start with at least half a cup of acid for a bunch of asparagus (I used 1/4 cup each of fresh lemon juice and rice vinegar), at least half a shallot, at least 1 teaspoon of salt, and pepper to taste. I also added 1/2 a teaspoon of sugar, even though Dan did not recommend that, and I will be doing so again. (Also, don’t sleep on the shallots — they are a treat unto themselves.)