What's In Season: Asparagus
A Cure for Spring Fever Cooking
The first harbinger of spring ingredients is always asparagus. Okay, they're not yet local but from the west coast; at least they've been grown in our hemisphere. Seeing asparagus stacked in our produce markets is like opening the gates to artichokes, ramps, mangoes, and fava beans tumbling in behind them.
Buying and Prepping Asparagus
While our first spring asparagus usually comes from California, as warmer weather arrives, we also get ones grown in Michigan and Washington, and of course, our lovely local crops. Buy stalks that are firm, stiff, and vivid green with little touches of purple. Make sure the tips are crisp and not in any way wet or slimy.
In the last few years I've noticed a big increase in the supply of really skinny asparagus and there's something so very appealing about them. Are they the same as their thicker counterparts? Yes, of course. A thicker stalk doesn't mean that they're any less tender, but I often find that the thicker ones have tougher skin and so these I always peel.
A popular asparagus trimming trick is to bend the stalks, one by one, until they break, suggesting that this is where the stalk changes from tough to tender. But I prefer to examine each and cut the stalk at the point where it appears to be tougher because I waste less -- plus, since I'm peeling the stalks, I can see where the texture changes from tough to tender. I also like to cut the stalks one by one because what may be tough on one won't be on the next so if you just line them all up and make one pass of the knife, you may cut off more than you need to. Take a little bit more time to do all and this and you'll get a far better result. Good quality vegetables can be costly so handle them with care and you'll get more value -- and of course, more taste.
Besides being delicious, asparagus is really good for us. It's high in folic acid, low in calories and sodium, and a good source of fiber, potassium, thiamin and other vitamins and nutrients. You may be surprised to learn (I was) that it's a member of the lily family, and it's grown in sandy soil which is why you need to really give the tips a good rinse, including a quick immersion in a bowl or sink of cool water.
White asparagus is considered by many to be a delicacy, and in fact, its taste is more subtle and nuttier than its green version. And why is it white? Because it is deprived of light when it is grown and without sunlight, the plant cannot produce green chlorophyll.
Cooking With Asparagus
- The simplest way to cook asparagus is in the microwave. Following the method told to me by the award-winning cookbook author and microwaving expert Barbara Kafka: rinse the stalks, cut or snap off any coarse ends, peel the stalks, weigh them using a kitchen scale to gather up one-half pound, place in a microwaveable glass dish, cover with plastic wrap and microwave for 2 minutes. The result is perfectly tender and bright green.
- You can alternatively steam the stalks over softly boiling water in a covered pot but remember that steaming leeches out a bit of the flavor and nutrients into the boiling water. It's not a tragic loss but the stalks do get more aggressively cooked as opposed to in the microwave.
- It's easy to roast asparagus. Just rinse, trim, peel as necessary, and spread in a single layer in a rimmed sheet pan. Dry them with a paper towel so that they roast and not steam when put in the oven. Drizzle with olive oil and add a slight bit of salt and freshly ground pepper; go light on the seasoning because as the stalks roast, they concentrate and all the flavors get intensified, including the salt and pepper. Cook in a hot (400º F) oven, giving the pan a shake now and then, until the stalks are tender and a bit caramelized.
- Asparagus is a tasty center ingredient for soup. See our recipe for Asparagus Cream Soup. Or in anything "primavera" including a braise with fava beans, artichokes and garlic, or a mix of spring vegetables that get tossed with pasta.
- You can add steamed and chilled asparagus stalks to any platter of vegetables or dressed with vinaigrette as an alternative to a salad. If you're not counting calories or cholesterol, asparagus and buttery, warm hollandaise sauce is a rich indulgence. Another way to give an elaborate finish to asparagus is to microwave or steam it until it's just tender, then place in a gratin dish, drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil, add a pinch of lemon zest, and dust with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Place under a broiler until the cheese melts and gets brown on the edges.
- Asparagus risotto is a favorite and a splendid centerpiece to a special spring dinner. Before you begin to make your favorite recipe for plain risotto, steam or microwave a generous handful of asparagus and then cut the stalks into 1-inch pieces, reserving the tips. Add the pieces of the stalk along with the rice at the start of the recipe; they'll break up as you cook the rice, adding delicate asparagus flavor and pale green color. Just before finishing the risotto, when you're at the point of needing only one or two additions of stock to get the texture perfect, add the asparagus tips; by adding at the end they will remain intact, adding visual appeal and letting everyone know how the risotto has been flavored.
- Make your own ravioli and fill it with a purée of fresh asparagus, bread crumbs, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and a little lemon zest to make a perfect spring pasta. Serve them in chicken broth (with a few asparagus tips floating nearby) or with a soft slick of melted butter with the tips on top.
- Asparagus is an excellent companion for shrimp. An easy weekday meal is to cook a bunch of asparagus (microwave or steam), cut the cooked stalks into pieces, and toss with shrimp that have been quick sautéed with a little garlic, olive oil and a pinch of red pepper flakes. This combination can be served on its own or added to pasta.
- A very simple weekday supper is a bunch of asparagus cooked until just tender, then topped with a single poached egg (cooked so that the yolk is still runny and loose) and a dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Another way to mix up this combination is an egg fried with a few pieces of pancetta or prosciutto that's added to a portion of cooked asparagus. The textures combine beautifully and the salt from the pancetta or prosciutto perfectly compliments the tastes of musky egg and bright asparagus.
By the time you run out of ways to put asparagus into your weekday dinners, spring will have moved on to early summer and the next crop of new vegetables will be giving you new inspiration.