Arguably the easiest and best way to prepare asparagus is to cook it whole in a large pan of boiling salted water until it's just crisp-tender—as little as two and no more than four minutes if the spears are nice and fat, then carefully drain, drizzle it with melted butter, and serve it forth. Second to that is to spread it on a baking pan, sprinkle it with olive oil and salt, and roast it in a very hot oven.
The drawback to both those methods is that they're best done just before serving and require the cook's almost undivided attention. When I know my attention is likely to be spread out over several things at the last minute, this sauté is what I turn to.
The asparagus is already mostly cooked, so it's really just a matter of warming it up in the pan, and guests don't have to cut the spears down to size at the table. Mind, they really shouldn't be using flatware at all: the correct way to eat whole asparagus spears at the table is the same way one eats them cold from a cocktail party tray—with the fingers.
But few modern guests know what our so-called stuffy Victorian ancestors did about table manners, so they struggle along with a knife and fork, and raise eyebrows at Victorian relics like me who are in the know.
There's no struggle, however, with this elegant little sauté: the partially cooked spears are already cut into small, bite-sized pieces. Heated through in a hot pan with plenty of good butter, it's done in no more than two minutes, and the only work required of the diner is lifting a fork.
Asparagus Tips in Butter
Though called asparagus "tips" in this classic French recipe, the whole spear, the tough skin at its base peeled, is used. It's a lovely accompaniment for lamb, ham and grilled meat, as well as most any fish, shellfish, or simple poultry.
2 pounds fresh asparagus, preferably thick-stemmed
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1 tablespoon finely minced flat-leaf parsley
1. Have ready a basin of cold water. Trim the cut end of the asparagus and peel the tough skin off the lower part with a vegetable peeler. Drop it in the cold water as you finish each stem. Bring 1-to-2-inches water to a boil in a deep, lidded 12-to-14-inch skillet over high heat. Stir in a small handful of salt, drain the asparagus from its water bath, and carefully slip it into the pan, letting it fall away from you. Cover and bring it back to a boil. Uncover and cook until the asparagus is bright green but still crisp, about 1-2 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of the stems.
2. While it cooks, prepare a second bath of cold water and add a couple of cups of ice to it. Quickly drain and drop the asparagus into the ice water, stirring until it's quite cold. Drain thoroughly and pat dry. Cut off the tips and cut stems on the diagonal into 1-inch lengths. The asparagus can be prepared to this point up to two days ahead. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
3. When you're ready to finish and serve the asparagus, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. When it's hot, add the asparagus and season it to taste with salt and pepper. Gently toss until it's heated through and done to your taste, about 1-to-2 minutes. Off the heat, add the remaining butter and gently toss until it's just melted. Turn it out into a warm serving dish, sprinkle with parsley, and serve at once.