Boiled or grilled asparagus

Is Galician-style turbot better than grilled turbot? We have never had that feeling, and indeed have never heard it voiced. What we have heard, a thousand-and-one times over, is how wonderful the new potatoes were and how well done the ajada garlic, paprika and oil sauce was. But the fish itself, however gigantic and fresh it may, however thick its skin and fat layer, however perfect the timing of the cooking, and notwithstanding any other virtue it may have, has never prompted praise, let alone exclamations of admiration.

Cooking in water is as bad for fish – being done to them only to preserve longstanding traditional recipes – as it is for meat or vegetables. The most perceptive of the Catalan cooks long ago decided to cook the fish separately from the other ingredients when making their suquet soup-stew. The Basque marmitako fish stew probably still lingers on as a stout repast because the Basque chefs never got around to revamping it. And the best Galician-style turbot dishes are made with baked rather than boiled fish; outstanding examples are already to be found.

After dining on consummate charcoal-grilled artichokes in the Basque city of Vitoria, in the Sagartoki restaurant where Senen González has joined the Basque grillroom revolution led by Etxebarri and Elkano, we are left wondering why we still go on draining the life out of artichokes and other vegetables by cooking them in water, as is the usual practice in Navarra, the Cantabrian coast, Castilla-Leon, Aragon …and so many other places where the colour, taste and texture of vegetables is thus vitiated.

Why do we still go on boiling asparagus when we know full well that it is one of the worst ways of cooking them? It’s irrational. Irrational not because the citizenry in general does not commit this mortal sin of gastronomy – that being understandable if not admissible – but because the professionals themselves perpetrate that grave error, those same professionals who would never boil a piece of fish or meat because everything has conspired to convince them that boiling is a rudimentary, boorish approach that irrecoverably adulterates the raw material. So why do they go on boiling asparagus? Of course they can claim in their defence that nowadays the most learned of their number serve the asparagus al dente – but nowhere near as al dente as they do in Germany, Switzerland, Norway and so on.

As with every other ingredient, the utmost freshness is the standard of reference for asparagus. As the days go by in the market, they change colour, taking on a brownish hue outside, while the skin thickens, the taste is spoiled and the texture takes a turn for the worse.

Asparagus of average thickness is the most prized in culinary circles. It has two advantages over large examples: medium-sized ones have a more delicate taste and are much less stringy. The yield per asparagus is even greater that way, for that same reason: with less stem-cutting needed, more of the plant can be used, though going over 50% is going a step too far even if the final destination is cream soup.

Thereafter, there are various ways of treating them. When griddled, they retain their identity. The same can be said of baked asparagus, though eight minutes at 200 ºC is quite sufficient when they are whole; when cut into fine strips, splashed with extra virgin olive oil and given a pinch of Maldon salt, they take four minutes. They are also exquisite when served uncooked, cut up into fine pieces or into half-centimetre slices and mixed with other vegetables in salads.