I was brought up to believe that the first asparagus of spring was an occasion. Flavor was gently coaxed from the stalks by briefly steaming or boiling them, then immediately refreshing them in an ice bath to stop the cooking and set the color. The chilled stalks were then served with pomp, on a platter and embellished with a sauce or relish of some sort, whether a drizzle of mustardy vinaigrette or a dollop of herb-flecked mayonnaise.

I stand by my upbringing. I don't believe in subjecting the first tender spears of spring to the scorching heat of grilling or roasting. I believe that my simple approach -- uncomplicated by grill marks or high oven heat -- enhances the flavor of asparagus rather than detracts from it. When served chilled, the asparagus can be made hours ahead of time and refrigerated. And best of all, my favorite toppings can easily be made while the asparagus cooks.

At the market, I select asparagus that are firm rather than droopy, of equal thickness (for even cooking), and with an intense green color, as opposed to a muddy, pallid hue. The tips should be closed and not appear to be dry, mushy or contain tiny seeds (which indicate age). Once you get the asparagus home, rinse the spears and use a paring knife to remove any leaves on the stalks. You may trim the woody bottoms wherever you wish, or you may simply bend the stalk and trust it to snap where it should.

Boiled or Steamed Asparagus

(Makes 4 servings)

Be careful not to overcook the asparagus; nothing is worse than limp, mushy spears. If desired, line the platter with thinly sliced prosciutto before arranging the spears on top for an antipasto dish.

I usually choose thick asparagus and use a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler to lightly strip the outside from the base of the tip to the bottom of the stalk. Peeling is not necessary if you find yourself with asparagus that are almost as thin as pencils.

About 1 pound asparagus, trimmed

Sauce, dressing or relish (see recipes at right)

To boil the asparagus: In a wide saucepan large enough to accommodate all of the asparagus, bring about 2 inches of water to a boil. Add about 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and the asparagus to the pan, return the water to a boil and cook just until the stalks are barely crisp, 4 to 5 minutes for most slender stalks and 5 to 6 minutes for most thick stalks.

To steam the asparagus: Place a steamer or a rack in a saucepan large enough to accommodate all of the asparagus. Add 1/4 to 1/2 inch of water to the pan and bring to a boil. Add the asparagus, cover and steam until tender, 5 to 6 minutes for most slender stalks, 7 to 8 minutes for most thick stalks.

To cool the asparagus: Have ready a large baking pan filled with ice water and a plate lined with paper towels. Carefully drain the asparagus or remove them from the steamer and immediately transfer them to the ice water. When the spears have cooled completely -- this will take only a few minutes -- transfer to the plate and pat dry. (Don't let the asparagus linger in the cold water any longer than it takes to chill the spears.)

To serve the asparagus, transfer the asparagus to a serving dish and spoon over the sauce, dressing or relish. Serve immediately.

Per serving (without sauce): 17 calories, 3 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, 3 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Watercress and Mustard Mayonnaise

(Makes enough to dress 2 pounds asparagus)

Peppery watercress adds both a bold color and flavor to this lemony mayonnaise. This also goes well with artichokes.

3/4 cup mayonnaise

11/2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest, plus additional to taste

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus additional to taste

Salt and freshly ground black or white pepper to taste

1/3 cup coarsely chopped watercress leaves

In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, mustard, lemon zest and juice and salt and pepper to taste. Add the chopped watercress and whisk to combine. Cover and refrigerate until chilled through.

Per serving (based on 8): 152 calories, trace protein, trace carbohydrates, 17 gm fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 153 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Mustard-Dill Vinaigrette

(Makes enough to dress 1 pound asparagus)

The unmistakable flavor of dill takes well to asparagus. Serve alongside poached or seared salmon fillets.

1 tablespoon vinegar, preferably white wine vinegar, plus additional to taste

2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

1 teaspoon honey

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, mustard, honey and salt and pepper to taste. Whisking constantly, add the oil in a steady stream and whisk until completely emulsified. Add the dill and whisk to combine. Taste and adjust the seasonings accordingly.

Per serving (based on 4): 190 calories, trace protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, trace cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 85 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Lemon and Caper Dressing

(Makes enough to dress 1 pound asparagus)

This simple, sprightly dressing can enliven asparagus in spring, blanched green beans in summer and steamed broccoli during cooler months.

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

2 small to medium shallots, finely chopped

1 heaping tablespoon capers, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley leaves

In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Whisking constantly, slowly add the oil in a steady stream and whisk until completely emulsified. Add the lemon zest, shallots, capers and parsley and whisk to combine. Taste and adjust the seasonings accordingly. (May cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Just prior to serving, whisk to recombine.)

Per serving (based on 4): 186 calories, trace protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 150 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Bell Pepper and Onion Relish

(Makes enough to dress 1 pound asparagus)

This relish -- which requires just a few minutes of cooking -- adds a garlicky flavor and a little bit of crunch to the asparagus.

6 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 tablespoon vinegar, preferably red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2/3 cup seeded and finely chopped red or orange bell pepper

1/3 cup finely chopped sweet or red onion

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves (plus additional for garnish, optional)

In a small saucepan over low heat, heat the oil and garlic just until the garlic begins to release its aroma, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Whisking constantly, slowly add the oil-garlic mixture and mix until completely emulsified. Add bell pepper, onion and parsley and stir to combine. The mixture should be chunky. If desired, sprinkle with additional parsley.

Per serving (based on 4): 195 calories, 1 gm protein, 4 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 72 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Green Shallot Sauce

(Makes enough to dress 1 pound asparagus)

This green sauce has a mild flavor that becomes more complex with time.

2 tablespoons vinegar, preferably white wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 tablespoons olive oil

3 medium shallots, trimmed, peeled and finely chopped

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley leaves

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Whisking constantly, slowly add the oil in a steady stream and whisk until completely emulsified. Add the shallots, parsley and garlic and whisk to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly. (May cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Just prior to serving, whisk to recombine.)

Per serving (based on 4): 193 calories, trace protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 73 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Lisa Yockelson is the author of "Baking by Flavor" (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002).