Asparagus – spring
One of the sure sign of spring is beautiful, crisp and green asparagus popping up at the farmers markets. It’s true that you can get asparagus almost all year but there is nothing like farmer’s market asparagus in season.
Asparagus is a branch of the lily family. It is planted deep in the ground and has a short growing season limited to a couple of months, barely. Asparagus is planted in trenches of sand or clay and the stalks that grow above the ground are what we eat.
Asparagus spears grow either thin or fat. A thin spear is not an indication that it is younger, it’s just how it came out of the ground. Thin asparagus doesn’t get fatter as it grows and I find it often a bit tougher than the fat spears as most of the fiber is in the skin and a thin asparagus is almost all skin. Regardless, thin or fat spears are both good and my suggestion is to choose based on the condition rather than the size. Choose spears that have a tight top end. The top or flower end should be firm and fresh looking and the tiny spikes wrapped around should be tight and compact. When buying asparagus also look at the stalk. A wrinkly stalk is a sign of dehydration. The stalk should be firm, smooth and full of moisture. Any signs of dehydration should cause you to reconsider serving asparagus and moving on to another awaiting veggie.
Once you have selected a bunch of asparagus, smooth, tight and fresh, take it home and use it within a day or two. If you store the asparagus don’t let it suffocate in a plastic bag in the fridge. For storing, first trim off an inch or two from the bottom of the talks. You can use the method of snapping the stalk where it naturally breaks or estimate the place where it would snap and cut the bunch with a knife. Now you have two options. Either stand the asparagus in a cup-like container filled with about an inch of water, wrap plastic loosely around the top and refrigerate. Alternatively wrap moist paper towel around the trimmed root end, cover loosely with plastic and refrigerate. Essentially asparagus is a flower and should be treated as such.
Another special treat is white asparagus. In fact white asparagus is the same as the green asparagus, not a separate variety. The stalks are grown buried in a mound of soil and remain white because no sunlight reaches them. This is truly a special treat. I was in Paris a while back in the spring when asparagus was in season. We stopped for lunch at Cafe de Paris and ordered the white asparagus with a light butter sauce that only the French can make. The dish (le plat) was so incredible that we went back there the next day for a repeat performance. See image of both plates below. Why can’t I eat like that every day? .
Purple asparagus is a separate specimen mutated to achieve the purple tones. Unfortunately though it loses the lovely purple colour when it’s cooked so the best way to show it off is to serve it raw with a dip.
Cooking asparagus is quick and easy. There are special asparagus steamers consisting of a tall pot with a basket insert that steams the asparagus standing up. Otherwise you can cook the spears in a pot or skillet wide enough to accommodate the length of the spears. Bring the water to a boil first, then add the spears and cook or steam until crisp tender. If you are not using them right away plunge them into a waiting bowl filled with ice water to stop the cooking and preserve their green colour. Once cooled remove from the water, dry and set aside until ready to finish the cooking. The classic way of serving asparagus is with hollandaise sauce made with melted butter, egg yolks, salt and vinegar. If that’s too rich, you can serve it with a vinaigrette, perhaps one made with nut oil. Fresh asparagus is also good plain with fleur de sel and a squeeze of lemon or served with an aioli type dip.
Another cooking method that brings out the natural sweetness in the asparagus is roasting or grilling. There is something special about asparagus cooked that way. To grill or roast asparagus brush the spears with olive oil or drizzle a little oil over them and toss so they are glistening. For grilling place on a grill and cook until done, turning until golden on all sides. For oven roasting place on a baking sheet lined with foil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast in a hot oven, about 400℉, shaking the pan once or twice, until the asparagus is done and nicely browned here and there. Be careful not to overcook. Serve grilled asparagus with a squeeze of lemon and shaving of parmesan or with aioli (homemade mayonnaise).
One of my favorite memories of asparagus is from Rome. I was much younger then and walked up the Spanish steps to the hotel on top to have lunch (could it have been the Il Palazzetto?). I was watching a naturally elegant woman dining by herself and noticed she had a plate of asparagus that she proceeded to eat with special asparagus tongs. She had a glass of white wine with it, I assume a Pinot Griggio. I remember being so inspired by that scene and of course, ordered the same. Funny how some things remain with you. Next time I am in Rome in the spring I will return to that hotel and order a plate of asparagus and proceed to savour it using asparagus tongs. Perhaps I will then provide an inspiration to another young woman who may be watching me.