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If you've never had properly cooked asparagus, you're missing out on something wonderful indeed.

So many professional kitchens send spears to the table undercooked that if you're accustomed to eating asparagus in restaurants, it's entirely possible you've never experienced how luscious it can be.

Undercooked asparagus, crunchy and forbidding, can taste like a punishment. But if you simmer asparagus long enough to cook it through, its texture becomes soft and almost creamy, and its lovely flavor comes into full bloom.

It's worth taking the time to peel it first. First trim off the woody end of the stalk, then use a vegetable peeler to (gently, so you don't break the stalk) peel it about two thirds of the way up to the tip. I find that letting the spear rest flat on the cutting board and using very gentle pressure to peel gets the job done most easily.

Set a pan of salted water to a boil, add the asparagus and cook, covered, until the spears are tender. How long this will take depends on their thickness. Medium-thin to medium spears will take about 31/2-41/2 minutes, jumbos a bit longer.

But rather than time them, I lift them gently with tongs, and when they're just a bit floppy, I pull them out.

Then I might serve them warm, letting a small pat of butter melt over them first if that's my mood or leaving them plain if I'm going lo-cal.

If you know your way around a kitchen, you won't need an actual recipe for this, but in case you do, here it is.

Once you discover (or rediscover) this simple pleasure, you'll probably want to branch out. You can prepare the spears this way, skip the butter, pour a vinaigrette over them and serve them either warmish or room temp. You can also shock them in cold water, chill them, then dress in vinaigrette later. For the vinaigrette, I might go one of four ways: simple vinaigrette with a little Dijon mustard; the same boosted with a dab of anchovy paste; dressed in a simple vinaigrette then garnished with crushed pink peppers; or dressed in a shallot vinaigrette.

Of course, there's an exception to the thorough cooking idea: Shaved raw asparagus can be wonderful in salads or as a garnish on fish or chicken dishes.

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