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Asparagus is at its best in spring

Asparagus' true season lasts only a few glorious weeks in April and May; and that's the time to make the most of it.

Fine Cooking Issue 78
Photos: Scott Phillips
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One of my earliest jobs was to help my mother harvest asparagus. I used an old, dull paring knife, plunging it in the ground and cutting the spears just below the soil. Asparagus was my first vegetable love, and my enthusiasm for this sweet, elegant vegetable has never waned. Although it’s available much of the year, its true season lasts only a few glorious weeks in April and May—and that’s the time to make the most of it.

I prefer thicker spears, which are more tender and, to my taste, sweeter than their thinner cousins. While green asparagus is a classic, these days you often have a choice of white or even purple asparagus. White varieties are mounded with soil to keep sunlight out; because the spears develop in darkness, they don’t produce chlorophyll, so they never turn green. Their skin is slightly tougher and their flavor is milder and doesn’t seem as sweet. Purple asparagus, a relative newcomer, is an attractive alternative to green. But unless you apply vinegar or lemon juice to the spears before cooking, they will discolor.

Grow your own

Buy ready-to-plant roots, called crowns (available at many garden centers or seed catalogs, including Cooksgarden.com), in early spring, and cover them with moistened peat moss or soil until you’re ready to put them in the ground. Dig a trench 6 inches deep, add some manure or compost to the bottom, and work it in. Create a mound of soil for each crown, spaicing the mounds 12 to 18 inches apart. Place each crown on a mound with the pointed growing tip facing up. Refill the trench to the top, firming the soil as you go, and water well. The following spring, don’t harvest any spears; the second spring, harvest only lightly. From the third spring on, you can harvest all the spears that come up.

How do you know it’s fresh?

Asparagus is commonly sold in bundles of about a pound standing upright in a tray of water. Choose fresh-looking, firm spears with tight tips. Smell them first to make sure they don’t give off an unpleasant odor (if they do, they’re old). Check the cut ends of the stalks; they should be moist, not dried out. If dried ends are all that’s available, cut about half an inch off the bottom. To make sure they keep their freshness, stand asparagus bundles in about an inch of water or in a jar or a shallow tray and keep them in the refrigerator. Cook the spears within two or three days.

Try different cooking methods

For pure, clean asparagus flavor, I like to just boil or steam the spears. For boiling, I use a wide shallow pan filled with about 3 inches of water. For steaming, I use a pasta pot with a perforated insert. I fill the pot so that about an inch of water fully enters the insert—this boils the thicker, tougher bases of the spears, while the rest only steams.

Grilling, sautéing, and roasting bring out a sweet nuttiness in asparagus and add a deeper flavor. The simplest preparation is to just toss the spears with olive oil, a little salt, and pepper before putting them in a 400°F oven, a hot skillet, or on the grill.

Asparagus just plain is pretty hard to beat, but some foods pair particularly well with it. These include orange and lemon, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, hard grated cheeses, eggs, mushrooms, and shellfish, particularly shrimp.

More ideas for asparagus

For a zingy appetizer or side dish, sprinkle roasted or grilled asparagus with finely grated lemon zest and crushed toasted nuts (walnuts, pine nuts, and almonds would work well).

For an extra dash of flavor, drizzle raosted or grilled spears with Asian sesame oil, then sprinkle on a little salt and some lightly toasted sesame seeds (white, black, or a mixture of the two).

Dress up steamed asparagus simply and deliciously with a sesame-lemon mayonnaise. Add 3 Tbs. Asian sesame oil and 3 Tbs. lemon juice to homemade or good-quality bottled mayo. Drizzle over the asparagus or use the mayo as a dipping sauce.

Make a bright, flavorful asparagus and shrimp pasta. Cut the spears into 1-inch pieces and blanch them briefly, then sauté the shrimp and asparagus with minced garlic and strips of sun-dried tomato. Finish with a little grated lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice and toss with bow ties or any small pasta shape.

Make a colorful and appetizing niçoise-style composed salad, with steamed, boiled, or roasted asparagus, strips of roasted red pepper, canned cannellini beans or chick peas, hard-boiled eggs, black olives, and grilled or oil-packed tuna on a bed of butter or romaine lettuce. Scatter with some toasted pine nuts and drizzle with a lemon or red-wine-vinegar vinaigrette.


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