When I lived in Walnut Creek, California, I had a neighbor named Harold. He was 87 years old, but he still worked in his garden every day. Every June, we'd walk through his orchard together, tasting the best of the season's first offerings. What I remember most from those walks, aside from Harold's gentle disposition, was the wild asparagus that grew between the rows of pear trees. Harold and I would pick the asparagus, and he'd patiently arrange it like a bouquet of flowers for me to take home.
Now that I live in New York City, that sacred little orchard seems like a dream to me, existing only in my memory as I walk past the brownstones on my block. But even without a garden at my doorstep, I still try to cook with only what's in season.
In spring, I eagerly look forward to the sight of bunches of sweet, tender asparagus, which usually stand tall among the produce as if in salute to the new season. For the short time it's at its best, I cook and serve it all different ways, with a simple citrus vinaigrette and orange slices one night, or tossed with morels, pasta, and cream on another.
For the best flavor, ignore size and look for freshness
Here in the United States, asparagus is usually green, though you might see pretty purple spears at farmers' markets. In Europe, soil is often mounded around the spears as they grow, keeping the shoots from direct sunlight, which results in white spears touched with a hint of purple. The taste of all three varieties is similar, but purple (which turns green when cooked) tends to be a little sweeter.
Many people think that thin asparagus is the most tender. But the truth is that asparagus of any size can be sweet and tender as long as it's fresh. Look for pencil-thin asparagus early in the spring, and fatter, succulent spears as the season progresses.
An easy way to trim asparagus is to snap the spears with two hands; the tough part should break right off. For a cleaner look and less waste, you can cut off the tough bottoms with a knife and peel the bottom half of the stalk if necessary.
Check the bottom of the spears for age. When shopping for asparagus, choose firm stalks with tightly closed buds at the tip. The color should be vivid with no signs of fading. Asparagus begins to lose its sweetness the moment it's cut. Check the stem ends for freshness: the best asparagus looks freshly cut and not at all dried out.
Store asparagus in water and use it soon. Asparagus lasts longest if its stem ends are submerged in water (another good sign to look for when shopping). I like to treat asparagus like flowers and refrigerate the spears in a glass with half an inch of water. Cook the asparagus within two days for the best flavor.
To prepare spears for cooking, grasp at either end and snap. The stalk will break naturally at the point where it starts to get tough and stringy. Use the fibrous ends for stock or for your compost pile. If the asparagus is thick-skinned or fibrous (take a small bite to test), peel the spears from just under the head to the stem end.