Asparagus! Spring’s Culinary Messenger
Tied in neat, tight bundles, like bouquets of flowers, fresh and locally grown tender asparagus makes its welcome appearance from March through June and was well known in antiquity. Its likeness was found carved into the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt. The Greeks thought of asparagus as an aphrodisiac, and the Romans regarded it as a luxury food and not only ate it in season but dried the shoots for winter use. But the stately stalk all but disappeared from favor until the 18th century when French farmers began to cultivate it again and the word spread that asparagus was, well, new again.
In the time line of food history, asparagus has come down today not only in its traditional rich green color, but in white, variegated, and purple hues too. Thick, white asparagus, favored by Europeans, is grown underground to prevent it from turning green. The most popular way to eat it is steamed with lots of melted butter or pureed for creamy asparagus soup.
By definition, asparagus is a member of the lily family; its young shoots turn into tall, wispy fern like plants if not picked when young.
Believe me, growing your own asparagus is a labor of love and the need for long patience; it takes 3 to 4 years from the day the asparagus crowns go into the manure rich soil until the first stalks appear and the first year may be slim pickings at best.
Are thin asparagus tastier than their chubby cousins? Not necessarily. Thick stalks are a telltale sign of the age of the asparagus plants which can live for up to 10 years. Pencil thin asparagus needs only minimal cooking. And there are two schools of thought on whether to peel or not to peel thick stalks. Some cooks like to remove the first outer layer of the lower part of the stalk with a vegetable peeler. Others just break the stalk at its natural bending point without peeling it.
The next best thing is to buy fresh asparagus from your local farmers market. It will taste so much better than the supermarket counterpart which may have been picked weeks prior, kept refrigerated and arrived in stores tasteless and woody.
Really fresh asparagus has tightly closed tips, is uniform in color and makes a clear snapping sound when bent at the lower end of the stalk.
Asparagus should be on display standing upright in a shallow puddle of water or on chips of ice to prevent it from drying out. And that is how is should be stored at home as well, like a bouquet of flowers in a glass of water. It is best to use asparagus immediately as it does loose some of its flavor if kept too long due to its natural sugars turning to starch.
There are several ways to cook asparagus. A tall, cylindrical asparagus pot is ideal because the stalks can stand upright and steam in a small amount of water; this will preserve its vitamin A, B-2 and C. Another method for cooking them is to lay them in a a large sauté’ pan, just barely cover them with water, and cook them just until just fork tender. Use a skimmer to lift and drain them from the water. A little melted butter and a squirt of lemon juice is all that is needed. Gently tossing asparagus stalks with olive oil and roasting them on a baking sheet or even on the grill gives great taste too. After roasting, sprinkle the spears with grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and a little coarse sea salt for a gourmet taste.
Asparagus combines beautifully with eggs in omelets as well as served at room temperature in a mustard based viniagrette as a side dish. Use it in quiches too, and to top open face sandwiches.
One pound of asparagus is somewhere between 12 and 15 spears and yields 4 servings. Try grilled asparagus with blood oranges and smooth and tangy burrata cheese.