Blogs, Twitter accounts and Pinterest boards are just starting to fill up with mentions of this spring staple. One of the surest signs that spring has arrived is when the first stalks appear at farmers markets and on seasonal restaurant menus.
Like tomatoes, asparagus is one of those produce items that I generally only eat when it is in season. Not only is it less expensive and more readily available in the spring months, but it also tastes infinitely better when it comes from a local farm versus when it is shipped from thousands of miles away.
If you’ve grown asparagus, you know that it is a wondrous little plant. Under ideal conditions, asparagus spears can grow up to 10 inches in just 24 hours. Once the temperatures become warmer in the late spring, the same asparagus crown can produce four to seven spears a week. Asparagus is also an extremely nutrient-dense food. It is very high in folic acid, iron and vitamins A and K. Additionally, it is very high in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients, which effectively combat health issues like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Green asparagus is the most common type of asparagus found in the U.S. White asparagus, which is usually sold preserved in cans or jars, is much less common. The white color is achieved when dirt is piled on the shoots just when they break ground and then shoots continue growing beneath the earth. The lack of sunlight results in white asparagus shoots. Asparagus also can be purple in color. This type of asparagus tends to be a little sweeter than the other variety.
How to select, store and prepare asparagus
Look for asparagus that is thin and firm, with tightly closed tips. It is OK for the base to be a little woody, as that keeps the asparagus from drying out and will be cut off before cooking anyway.
Store asparagus wrapped in a damp paper towel in the refrigerator for up to four days. As with almost all fresh fruits and vegetables, it is, of course, best when eaten immediately after purchase.
Right before you are ready to use the asparagus, snap off the woody bottom third of the stalk. The best way to find the breaking point is to hold the asparagus ends with both hands and bend the stalk until it snaps. It will break in just the right place, and you can use that piece as a measure when trimming the remainder of the bunch.
In many cases, fresh asparagus is thin and tender and does not warrant any peeling. If the stalk is a little woody and fibrous, use a vegetable peeler to carefully peel the outer layer of the stalk, stopping before you hit the tip of the asparagus.
Ways to enjoy asparagus
- Oven-roasted: This is a classic way to prepare asparagus, and for good reason. Asparagus’ natural sweetness is enhanced when it is baked with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice in a hot oven for about 15 minutes. Roasted asparagus makes for a lovely accompaniment to roasted meats and fish.
- Raw (yes, raw!): Really thin, fresh asparagus is wonderful when sliced super thin and tossed with a simple vinaigrette, Kalamata olives and red onion. It’s a good idea to prepare the salad first and let it marinate as you prepare the rest of the meal as the acid in the vinaigrette will help tenderize the asparagus.
- Pastas: For a light and fresh pasta dinner, toss cooked pasta with lightly steamed asparagus, olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs and a touch of Parmesan cheese.
- Egg dishes: Stuff your omelets with asparagus and goat cheese or toss into your scrambled eggs for a punch of color and varying texture. Or, if you’re hosting a brunch, try adding it into a simple yet elegant frittata.
- Soups: When pureed with aromatic vegetables and stock, asparagus can make for a tasty and earthy soup. This recipe combines asparagus with leeks and cumin for a flavorful and nutrient-packed starter.
- Creative salads: Oven-roasted or steamed asparagus can make a nice addition to salads. Toss chopped asparagus with pasta or potato salad or with your favorite green salad. You can also use asparagus as an elegant base for a salad, such as in this recipe:
Elegant asparagus salad with prosciutto and poached egg
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 4 eggs
- 1 pound asparagus, woody ends removed
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 3 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto
- 1 (2-ounce) piece Parmesan cheese, shaved into strips
- Extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar for drizzling
- Bring a large saucepan filled with water to a boil. Lower to a simmer and stir in the white vinegar. Crack one egg into a small bowl and gently transfer to the simmering water. Cook until the white has set, about three minutes. Transfer to an ice bath. Repeat with the remaining eggs.
- Preheat the broiler and place the asparagus on a baking sheet. Toss it with enough olive oil to coat and salt and pepper to taste. Place the asparagus under the broiler and cook, turning once, until slightly caramelized, about seven minutes.
- Arrange the asparagus on a plate and drape with the prosciutto slices. Bring a large pot of water to a simmer. Lower the poached eggs into the simmering water for about 30 seconds to rewarm them. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the eggs onto the plated asparagus and prosciutto.
- Sprinkle the shaved Parmesan cheese on top of the salad and drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.