Once thought of as a harbinger of spring, asparagus is now available nearly year round. This vegetable delicacy has a flavor like no other. Asparagus is actually the sweet, tender, early shoot of a plant in the lily family. In the industry it's referred to as grass.
Edible asparagus grows best in temperate climates, where the ground freezes in winter but the growing season is warm. It can range in size from very thin--called pencil grass--to jumbo grass, which can be as big around as a nickel. A lot of people think that thin stalks are younger, but that's not the case at all. It's true that a mature asparagus spear is tough and woody, but old asparagus can come in any size.
Asparagus basically comes in three colors: green, white, and purple. Most common is the long green asparagus. White asparagus is simply green asparagus that has been covered with soil to blanch out the color. The flavor is about the same, but the texture may be more tender. Purple asparagus is purple at the tip and at leaf points and tends to have a pale stalk.
Because it is very difficult to grow and harvest, asparagus costs more per pound than most other vegetables, but to most of us the taste is worth the expense. Asparagus is also extremely y perishable and is usually shipped in wooden boxes with water pads on the bottom to keep the fresh-cut stems moist.
Imported asparagus is available year round at high prices. Asparagus is less expensive during the North American harvest, which is from April to June.
Look for tight, dry tips, which should be fresh green or purplish--never yellowed or going to seed. The tops should never be wet. Smell the asparagus--it should have no odor. A bad-smelling spear is a bad asparagus.
The base of the asparagus is usually white, woody, and tough, and the more white on the stalk, the more you're going to have to throw away. With white varieties of asparagus, which are generally available only in fancy fruit markets, gauging toughness by the amount of white doesn't quite work. However, the tough part of the stem will look slightly dry and woody.
Generally, there is very little difference in taste and texture between long, short, thick, or thin asparagus. The important determining factor is freshness. But do pick asparagus of a uniform size so that it will cook evenly.
Asparagus is best if you buy it the day you plan to use it. Refrigerate it as soon as you get it home. If necessary, you can keep it as long as three or four days under refrigeration.
Gently wash the asparagus and snap off the tough bottom ends (snap them in two with your hands instead of cutting them, and they'll break just above the tough part). Steam them or braise in a small amount of water, but don't overcook. Overcooking will turn asparagus into a tasteless mush. Each spear needs to be soft all over, but the tips tend to cook faster than the stem ends. Try standing them up in a narrow pot and steaming them in about an inch of water. My Irish grandmother used to cook asparagus in a coffeepot: she'd tie them in a bunch with string, stand them in an inch or two of water, and cook about five minutes, or until tender but still crisp. You can also sauté asparagus for three or four minutes with butter, adding a spoonful of water as necessary to prevent burning.
What is true for most fresh vegetables is especially true for fresh asparagus the less you do to it, the better it tastes. Asparagus is a treat lightly cooked and dressed with no more than a little butter and salt. For variety it can be added to soups, used raw in salads or blanched and served cold in a vinaigrette. It's also a terrific addition to pasta dishes.
Baked Crusty-Crumb Asparagus
Other recipes from Produce Pete.