I’ve written so much about asparagus on Shared Kitchen and as there is no point in re-inventing the wheel, here, I collate the key points and comments.
Asparagus remains one of the true signs of spring and I just love that it won’t do its thing until it is warm enough. It stays tucked under ground until everything is just right, and then BINGO, up it pops, with its neighbours, seemingly overnight. Secretly, I hope that no one discovers an economical way of growing it in a glasshouse or tunnel-house because it does give true meaning to the word seasonality.
When it first appears, I fall over the crowds at the market to get my hands on some, and reckon there’s no better way of serving the first bunch than with a puddle of extra virgin olive oil and a bowl of freshly grated parmesan to dunk it into, or a bowl of just-melted garlic butter. As the season moves on you do need to be more inventive but I get irritated with people who say they are over it, bored with it, while they grab the latest imported produce.
The asparagus plant is an interesting creature, a perennial, and a member of the lily family. It consists of a crown, which sends up shoots each spring. At the end of spring spears are left to grow into ferns, which then undergo photosynthesis. The root system is recharged with carbohydrates and these are stored in fat storage roots. In autumn the plants die off, and they remain dormant in winter, waiting for the ideal conditions of cool nights and mild daytime temperatures to start the process again. There are male and female plants (true!). The male plants produce more spears and live longer, but the female plants, wouldn’t you know it, produce the fattest juiciest spears. While it is great to grow asparagus in a home garden it does mean making the chosen area a dedicated asparagus bed year round with the only produce appearing in spring.
The asparagus season peaks around late October in the southern hemisphere, so my recommendation is to scoff as much of it as you can while it is good and affordable. That is RIGHT NOW!
Fresh & snappy? Try it raw!
If asparagus is really fresh – taut and snappy and still a little juicy – it is gorgeous raw. Soak briefly to ensure it is free of grit but not long enough to leach its Vitamin C, shake and pat dry. Slice thinly. It’s not much fun to eat a bowl of raw thumb-sized chunks of asparagus – you would be chewing a lifetime. Instead, slice very thinly on the diagonal. If you are not confident with a knife, peel into slivers with a vegetable peeler. Dress with hazelnut oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper and serve a spoonful with roast chicken, or a delicately cooked chicken breast, or steamed or pan-fried fish. I know you are meant to resist picking the first little tufty sprouts of tarragon leaves as they pop out of the ground in late spring (yep, if you have a tarragon plant, it will die off in autumn and pop up again in late spring or early summer, so watch for it), but, a few tiny sprigs added to the mix of asparagus, hazelnut oil and lemon is magic. True, if you buy a bottle of hazelnut oil you will need to find uses for the rest of the oil in the bottle. READ MORE Asparagus & Orange Salad
Skinny or fat?
Sometimes you see bunches of pencil-thin asparagus, and other days, big chumpy spears, and you’re not sure which is best. Rest assured the skinny jobs are males, and the nice plump ones are female! Ahhwww, nature is so predictable. Be that as it may, skinny asparagus are the ones to choose when you want to make a frittata, or a quiche or tart. Thick pieces of asparagus, especially if they still have a little crunch, will cause a frittata or pie to split when you cut it. Choose skinny asparagus, and cook them until they are bite-tender. Swirl through beaten seasoned eggs (salt, pepper, nutmeg) and grated parmesan, and drop into hot sizzling oil and butter in a frying pan (skillet), letting them curl around the pan. They will become ‘one’, a cohesive mixture, which will look good and slice easily.
Those big fat spears? They are the ones for dunking into a vinaigrette (or messy eggs!), or for roasting or barbecuing. The thick end is good to hold on to if using asparagus as a dipper – in fact they make great fingerfood, though you may not always be able to chew them down to the end, so provide a dish for the stumps. Sunday Night Supper
How to cook
Back in the day asparagus was cooked butt-end down in tall cylindrical pots half-filled with boiling water with the tips poking above the water line where they steamed. Fancy pots came with a draining basket so you could lift the asparagus out of the pot without having them break on you. And break they did because asparagus back then was cooked to within an inch of its life: it was so tender it could accidentally be squished to a purée! Most of us now prefer asparagus cooked to retain a bit of crunch, though there are some occasions when cooked until tender is necessary – when making a risotto or in traditional Italian pasta dishes, for instance. You just cannot eat a crunchy chunk of asparagus in the same mouthful as an ‘al dente’ piece of pasta. The pasta will get munched up first every time and the asparagus and pasta will end up as two disparate ingredients. The same thing with risotto – the rice grains won’t cling sufficiently to something erect, and the dish will lack harmony. Asparagus Pasta
These uses aside, asparagus will taste better, look better and be better for you if it is lightly cooked. To cook asparagus in water, bring a saucepan (or a frying pan/skillet) of water to the boil, salt the water, drop in the asparagus and cook without a lid for 2-7 minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus and your preferred degree of ‘crunch’. Drain, splash with half a cup of cold water to halt the cooking, then serve, or toss with butter or extra virgin olive oil or other seasonings then serve. Asparagus can be steamed, but it will lose its vibrant green colour more easily with this method, so keep the cooking time short and serve immediately it is ready.
If asparagus is to be served cold, or if you want to cook it ahead for a quick reheating at serving time (in a wok, for instance), drain it then briefly plunge it into a bowl of icy-cold water. As soon as the asparagus is cool, drain, then pat dry with paper towels. If you need to prepare asparagus several hours ahead, wrap it in paper towels, transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to reheat.
Asparagus is great in a stir-fry, remaining crunchy and bright green. Cut spears into short lengths and stir-fry in hot oil for a minute or two. Add ginger and garlic, a pinch of salt and a good grind of black pepper, and serve. For a nutty burst, splash in a little sesame oil, or finish with sesame seeds. Asparagus & Red Pepper Stir-fry
Plump asparagus spears are best for roasting. Trim and put them in a large, shallow ovenproof dish. Spray with olive oil and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bake for 15-25 minutes in a hot oven, until the natural sugars caramelize and the tips turn crunchy.
Barbecue or grill
Asparagus were made to barbecue (cook on a grill). Spray spears lightly with oil, add seasonings such as lemon zest, crushed coriander seeds, flecks of dried chilli etc., and cook for several minutes on a hot plate (griddle), or over the grill, until they brown a little and smell irresistibly gorgeous. To facilitate turning, and to prevent any of them falling through, secure several asparagus in a line with bamboo skewers. Asparagus Wraps
About asparagus and wine …
Asparagus and new season’s Sauvignon Blanc comes on to the market around the same time. I reckon they make a striking match, although some wine experts disagree. I think muting the asparagus-ness of asparagus is a silly idea, and I prefer to build on it. Asparagus eats well with a gutsy, capsicum-asparagusy Sauvignon Blanc, a wine with a big whack of flavour. And it can cope with wines that have an herbaceous and cut-grass character, too. Throw in some garlic, which Sauvignon Blanc loves anyway, and you’ve got the chance of striking the perfect match, according to me, that is!
Why pay more for asparagus?
What’s the deal with white, green and purple asparagus? The white are more expensive than the green because they are more laborious to produce. If spears are left to grow in the light, they become green. To keep them white, they need to be blanched (piled up with soil, or covered), during the growth period. In Europe white asparagus reigns supreme, but in New Zealand it’s the green we are in love with. Green asparagus smells more pungent when it is cooked and has a more intense flavour than white. Although I don’t have a breakdown for New Zealand asparagus, European green asparagus contains significantly more nutrients than white. Purple asparagus loses its striking colour on cooking and turns a dull khaki green, so keep it for salads and serve raw to show it off at its best..
A final point, but a great one …
There is plenty of research to support the inclusion of foods rich in antioxidants in our diet, but it may come as a surprise to learn how highly asparagus rates on the antioxidant chart. Watercress tops the chart, followed by kumara (NZ sweet potato), with asparagus coming in third. The antioxidant levels drop by around 50% in canned asparagus, but canned asparagus still beat many other fresh vegetables. There’s plenty of potassium, good amounts of calcium, and magnesium and phosphorous. It’s low in salt and has a good amount of fibre. Asparagus has practically no fat, but in my book fat makes it taste so much better! Yeah! It loves it – think butter, cream, cheese, and olive oil. Mmmmm.