Few vegetables represent spring as definitively as asparagus, with its tender shoots poking out of the moist, dark earth to meet the warm sun and lengthening days. This perennial garden favorite is a member of the lily family, one that is harvested in an all-too-brief season. Most commonly cultivated is the familiar green asparagus, but in Europe white asparagus (created by piling soil high around the emerging shoots) is a highly prized delicacy.
In some farmers markets, asparagus comes in tubs or bins where shoppers can select their own spears, stalk by stalk. People tend to have their own strong preferences about how thick the thickness of the perfect asparagus should be; it doesn’t really matter, and they are all good, as long as the stalks aren’t too old or woody. In some places, especially along irrigation ditches, wild asparagus still grows (or escapees of regular garden asparagus). Provided that they are not near harmful or contaminated runoff areas, don’t pass these up should you spot them—they can be quite the taste treat.
Humans have eaten asparagus since ancient times, cultivating it 2,000 years ago in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. The ancient Greeks and Romans were particularly fond of it; the latter even froze it! Asparagus was eaten fresh in season and dried for consumption in other times of the year. Asparagus was prized not only as a food plant but also as medicine, used to treat an array of symptoms from heart trouble to toothaches.
Asparagus is high in vitamins A, B-complex (especially folic acid), and C, as well as potassium and zinc. Like most veggies, asparagus has no fat; four spears contain only 15 calories.
Good asparagus should feel firm, not limp or shriveled (especially its tips), with an attractive green color (except for white asparagus, which is deliberately kept pale yellow to keep the stalks tender). Stalks that are large at the base may be tough or woody; such specimens should be trimmed or peeled before cooking. Thinner-stalked asparagus spears may be more tender and sweeter than larger ones; you may want to peel them as well, just to avoid the annoyance of potential long fibers.
Wrap unwashed, dry asparagus in a plastic bag and place it in the refrigerator vegetable crisper. Use as soon as possible, within 1 or 2 days; the plant’s sugars turn to starches very quickly. If you have to store the asparagus for more than a day, either wrap the ends in a damp paper towel or bundle the spears with a rubber band and stand them upright in a container in an inch of water.
Trimming and Cleaning
Wash and thoroughly drain the spears in cool running water. (Watch out for grit trapped under the scales.) The tougher bottom ends can be either snapped or sliced off. If your asparagus spears are thicker and older, you may need to peel them first. Thin or very fresh stalks do not need peeling.
Steaming and Boiling
A perennial dilemma with asparagus is that the thicker bottom ends take longer to cook while the tender tips become mushy. Steaming asparagus upright in a deep steamer, double boiler, or percolator solves this problem, but then the spears lose their bright green color. Boiling asparagus uncovered in lots of salted water keeps it nice and green, but you will have to monitor for that exact moment when the spears go from being deliciously crisp-tender to mushy. Boil rapidly for 4 to 5 minutes, testing by piercing them with a fork; when they are tender, drain and plunge them immediately into cold water to stop them from cooking further.
Stir-Frying and Sautéing
Cut the spears diagonally into ½-inch pieces, leaving the tips whole. Stir-fry the pieces in butter or hot oil in a skillet or wok at medium-high heat. Stir constantly until tender-crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. For perfectly cooked asparagus, you may want to toss in the thicker stem pieces first, sauté them for a minute or so, and then add the thinner, more delicate tips.
Baking and Roasting
Roasting asparagus in the oven brings out its natural sweetness and makes a sophisticated dish that is very easy to prepare. Pour in 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a baking pan, add any desired seasonings, and roll or toss the spears in the oil to evenly coat them. Roast them at 500°F for 8 to 10 minutes, depending on their thickness, or until they can be pierced easily with a knife and take on a slightly crisp and browned exterior.
What Can You Do with Asparagus?
- Serve cooked asparagus warm with hollandaise sauce or topped with butter and Parmesan cheese.
- Serve cooked asparagus cold with a simple vinaigrette, or olive oil, lemon juice, and sea salt. A final toss with grated lemon zest adds flavor and beauty.
- Asparagus is the ultimate finger food. Believe it or not, proper etiquette calls for eating asparagus with your fingers, not utensils! Kids love dipping spears in a little dish of melted butter, salad dressing, or mayonnaise.
- Slice into 1-inch pieces and stir-fry with other vegetables in a wok with a little corn, peanut, or sesame oil.
- Substitute asparagus for leeks in a leek tart or quiche recipe, or combine the two vegetables.
- Top pizza with very thin spears or tips of parboiled or steamed asparagus.
- Sauté asparagus in chicken broth for more flavor.
- Place parboiled asparagus spears, tomatoes, mushrooms, and shredded mozzarella cheese on top of focaccia bread for an elegant garden pizza.
- French-fry asparagus just like potato fries for a delicious and unusual dish, or try as a tempura vegetable.
- Asparagus and morel mushrooms, lightly sautéed in butter, are a magical combination, with happily synchronized market appearances in the spring.
- Add cooked asparagus to your favorite omelet, scrambled eggs, or quiche.
- If you are lucky enough to encounter young, tender asparagus the width of a pencil, try serving it raw with carrot and celery sticks and a favorite dip.
- Asparagus was born to be wrapped. I like to do it with bacon, but smoked salmon, prosciutto, Iberian ham, phyllo dough, salami, and smoked turkey are also absolutely delicious.
- Grill asparagus brushed with olive oil, vinaigrette, or your favorite dressing, plus a little salt and pepper.
For a delicious recipe that celebrates the flavors of spring, check out Spaghetti with Spring Vegetables.