When you’ve tasted the first asparagus of the season, simply cooked, maybe spritzed with a bit of lemon and topped with a tad of butter, you’ve just tasted spring.
Although good asparagus can be found year-round, it is at its peak – and least expensive – during the spring months. In California, the first crops are picked as early as February, depending on the weather. In the Midwest and East, the growing season can go into July. For most, peak season will be between March and June.
Asparagus officinalis is actually a member of the lily family that originated in the Mediterranean region. Its delicious tender spears are actually young shoots that, if left to their own, would eventually grow into tall fern-like branches. Growing asparagus requires patience. It usually takes 3 to 4 years for a seed to mature enough to produce a healthy stalk. It is, however, a perennial plant, and once established will produce for 10 to 15 years. Its lengthy maturation and the fact it must be harvested by hand contribute to its relatively high cost and its reputation as a “luxury” vegetable.
No where is asparagus more celebrated than in Germany, where the favored white variety is considered the King’s vegetable and is the hallmark of spring. Many towns celebrate Spargelfest (asparagus festival), and the Baden Asparagus Route, a 136 km/86 mile tour, includes the world’s largest asparagus farm, the largest market in Europe, and the self-proclaimed asparagus capital, Schwetzingen.
Green: This is the most common type of asparagus found in the United States. It can range in size from pencil-thin to very thick.
White: White asparagus is preferred in Europe. It gets its color, or lack of it, from being grown under banked soil or sand to keep it from getting sunlight. Many believe that white asparagus has a gentler, milder flavor. It is not usually found fresh in the United States, only in jars.
Purple: This variety of asparagus is more commonly found in Europe. It will retain its purple color if lightly cooked, but if overcooked it will turn green.
Does Size Matter?
The short answer: It depends. Whether to choose thick or thin asparagus is a matter of personal preference or how the asparagus will be used. Although it is commonly believed that thin asparagus will be more tender, this is not always the case. Generally, thin asparagus need less preparation and less cooking time, and are ideal for including in egg dishes or stir frying. Thicker, more substantial stalks are meatier, and best enjoyed whole.
Thickness has more to do with how the plant is grown and how soon it is eaten after harvest rather than spear size. Poorly or long-stored thin asparagus can be tough and flavorless, while fresh, fat spears can be very sweet and tender.
Buying & Storing Asparagus
Whether thick or thin, choose asparagus with smooth stems and tight tops. If there are wrinkles in the stalk or the tips are feathery, it’s not very fresh. The white, woody ends should be less than 20 percent of the total length of the stalk.
If you’re not going to cook asparagus right away, there are a couple of ways to store them in the refrigerator. Either stand them upright in a glass or measuring cup in an inch or so of water and cover the top with a plastic bag; or Wrap the asparagus in a dampened paper towel and keep in a plastic bag. Try to use to asparagus within 3 or 4 days of bringing them home.
Preparing and Cooking Asparagus
The woodier ends of all asparagus, thick or thin, need to be trimmed. Cooks are commonly taught to take a stalk and bend it slightly to the point where the stalk naturally breaks and discard the portion below. The cut ends can also be used to add to an asparagus soup or saved with other vegetable trimmings to make a vegetable stock.
Cooking luminaries the likes of Bert Greene and Julia Child strongly believed in peeling asparagus stalks, not out of finickiness but out of thriftiness and to preserve the best of taste. By peeling the stalk of the thicker stalks, there is considerably less waste. Peeling also make the stalks cook more evenly, from the tip to the end. There is no need to peel very thin asparagus stalks, just snap or cut the very ends and cook.
Asparagus can be cooked a variety of ways. They can be steamed, poached, stir fried or roasted. They can also be blanched and chilled for a salad or deep fried with a bit of breading for the ultimate finger food. Roasting asparagus, with a little olive oil and salt, is a simple cooking method that draws out the natural sugars of the vegetable.
Whatever method of cooking, be careful not to overcook. Pierce the stalks with a fork to gauge doneness; the stalks should still have a little bite. Too much cooking time, and you’ll risk turning your delicate asparagus into mush.
One pound of asparagus is usually between 12 and 15 spears, making about 4 servings of whole stalks, or 3 cups of cut-up asparagus.
Asparagus Recipes & Techniques
Asparagus goes well with a variety of cheeses, like chèvre, Fontina, Parmesan, or ricotta. It’s a natural companion to eggs and egg dishes like quiche. Lemon, butter, cream, chervil, capers, and dill are all favorite flavor companions.