Asparagus plants produce young edible shoots—called “spears” for about six weeks each spring just as the days begin to lengthen and winter fades. The season for asparagus is late February through June—the season’s peak depends upon where you live.
What’s the best way to appreciate the subtle sweet grassy taste of asparagus? Well, you can eat it raw, parboiled, steamed, boiled, braised, baked, roasted, and grilled.
One early American cookbook suggested that asparagus be served with “oyl and vinegar.” That’s still great culinary advice.
Asparagus facts and trivia. Asparagus is a member of the lily of the valley family and is believed to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean where wild asparagus still grows. The word asparagus can be traced back to the Persian word asparag, meaning sprout.
- Asparagus—which is a perennial vegetable—was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Early Roman records give instruction for cooking asparagus. After the fall of Rome, asparagus was cultivated in Syria, Egypt, and Spain. From Spain, its popularity spread throughout Europe.
- Asparagus shoots grow from an underground stem or crown. The first two years after planting, a bed of asparagus is not productive; the third year spears are thick enough to be harvested. Individual asparagus plants can produce edible spears for more than 10 years.
- Spears range in size from pencil-thin to two or three times as thick. Spears range in color from lush green to deep purple to white. White is not a natural color for asparagus. White asparagus is man-made when spears are purposely covered with soil and blanched white through the lack of exposure to sunlight.
- One asparagus variety called Viola is naturally purple, but the purple pigment turns green when heated.
- There are more than 300 varieties of asparagus. Only about 20 are edible
- Asparagus can be divided into three main categories:
- Green asparagus is the most common. Green spears are harvested at about 6 to 8 inches in length. They are considered the most flavorful by many.
- White asparagus is favored by Northern Europeans. White spears are usually thick, smooth and tender. They are harvested just after the tips break through the mounded soil that surrounds them. The most famous white asparagus is grown in Argenteuil just outside Paris.
- Purple asparagus has a fruity flavor and is the sweetest tasting asparagus. Purple asparagus is harvested when only 2 or 3 inches tall.
- Asparagus shoots must be harvested by hand with a special knife that is inserted in the ground near the shoot and tilted to cut it off above the root. About half the length of an asparagus stalk that comes to your table is underground growth.
Choose. Select asparagus with firm, plump, straight, round spears. The color should be strong for the variety: green, deep purple or ivory white. The tips should be compact. The white, woody bottoms should be less than 15 percent of the total length. There should be no blemishes or bruises.
Fresh asparagus spears wrapped in a bunch will be squeaky when rubbed together and will snap easily when bent. Avoid asparagus that is wet, slimy, smelly or shriveled.
Choose stalks that are about the same size and thickness—pencil thin, standard or jumbo–for even cooking.
Store. Asparagus is best cooked fresh the day you buy it. If you must store it, cut off 1 inch (2.5 cm) from the bottom, wrap the fresh-cut area in a wet paper towel, and place it in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator crisper. Asparagus will keep for 2 to 3 days. To prolong storage, stand the cut-end down in 1 to 2 inches (2.5-5 cm) of water and place a plastic bag over the top. Change the water daily.
Prepare. Wash asparagus just before cooking then break or cut off stalk at its natural breaking point. An asparagus spear will break naturally where it becomes tough.
Remove skin of older or larger asparagus–which can be tough–with a vegetable peeler.
Serve. Asparagus should be served “al dente” which means firm enough to bite into. The tips of asparagus are eaten with a fork, and the rest of the stem with your fingers.
The best way to cook asparagus is standing up with the tender tips just above the water level. Trim and cut stem ends level, tie the spears together in a bundle, and place them in 1 inch (2.5 cm) of water in a tall, covered saucepan. Cover and cook for 5 to 10 minutes depending upon thickness until just tender. This way the bottoms are cooked and the tops are steamed.
If you want to serve cooked asparagus cold, plunge the cooked spears into cold water to halt the cooking process, but do not let them soak. To boil asparagus horizontally, place the spears in 1 inch (2.5 cm) of water in a non-reactive skillet such as copper or aluminum (iron pots react to tannins in the asparagus and alter the color of the vegetable) for 3 to 5 minutes until tender-crisp; turn occasionally, then remove and run under cold water to set the color.
The residual heat will continue to cook asparagus stalks for 30 to 60 seconds after they are removed from the heat.
Be sure to thoroughly drain or dry cooked asparagus to remove excess moisture from the spear tips so as not to dilute a serving sauce.
Asparagus has flavor affinities for butter, cheese, chervil, eggs, lemon, olive oil, pasta, rice or risotto, seafood, tarragon, and tomato.
Nutrition. Asparagus contains vitamin A and is a fair source of iron and vitamins B and C and is a source of folic acid. There are 35 calories to the serving. About 94 percent of the of weight of an asparagus spear is water
The botanical name of asparagus is Asparagus officinalis.