The thing I remember most about the first time I tried asparagus is dipping it in mayonnaise. I was about seven and also vaguely recall grilled steak and a 1980’s-era version of my dad, but the mayonnaise I remember clearly. (Best Foods. I grew up in Washington State and wouldn’t hear of Hellman’s for another 20 years.) Even as a child, I liked vegetables, but I really liked condiments. I still enjoy a good sauce, but these days I appreciate asparagus as most people do, for what it symbolizes: the beginning of the growing season.
A Brief History
Arguably the most iconic of the spring vegetables, asparagus is grown around the world and has been celebrated for millennia. Ancient Egyptians are said to have enjoyed it as many as 20,000 years ago, and Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, employed a whole group of ships, the so-called “asparagus fleet,” to transport huge shipments of it.
Any asparagus enthusiast will tell you that despite its year-round appearance in modern American grocery stores, it is far tastier grown locally and enjoyed in the spring. But our modern tendency to go to great lengths to eat it whenever we want isn’t new. France’s King Louis XIV had special greenhouses built to grow the delicacy year round, the Romans were known to freeze it in the Alps and both they and the Greeks reportedly dried it for off-season noshing.
- This year’s British Asparagus Festival was cancelled due to an especially light harvest, owing to a warm March and floods in April.
- In Washington State, there is no such shortage – in fact, farmers there are enjoying a bumper crop this year – but some have let their asparagus go unharvested due to a shortage of skilled farmworkers.
- Asparagus is known to have a certain effect after eating it, and a surprising amount of research has been conducted over the years to investigate whether it affects the urinary scent of everyone who eats it (it does seem to) and whether or not everyone can detect the odor (apparently, not everyone can, and some studies point to an “asparagus pee gene”).
This flowering perennial, a cousin to garlic, unfurls into a fern-like plant when left unharvested, and comes in four varieties: green, white, purple and wild. It takes three years from the time that a grower sows a seed before its first real harvest. Purple asparagus is reported to be more tender, and sweeter, too. It tends to grow fatter stalks, with fewer per “crown” than its green and white counterparts. (Purple asparagus must be treated specially to maintain its color through the cooking process and white is only so because it is covered with dirt during the final stages of its growth, robbing it of chlorophyll. The jury is out on the result – some say it’s more tender, others less so – but without doubt, it is highly prized in Europe.) Wild asparagus stalks are said to be thinner than a pencil.
China leads global production, followed by Peru and then the U.S. (especially in California, Washington and Michigan). Germany is also famous for asparagus, especially the white variety.
In terms of pesticide load, asparagus ranked #49 on the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers' Guide to Pesticides in Produce with no detectable pesticide residues on 90 percent of samples tested. (See our vegetable rule of thumb, below*) In terms of water, asparagus doesn’t like much, so it stands to reason that compared to a lot of other vegetables, its water footprint is pretty small. And unless it’s grown in a hothouse or imported from another coast or hemisphere, its energy requirements would seem to be pretty small, too.
Asparagus season generally runs from April to mid-June and sometimes into July in the northern U.S., and starts earlier in more southerly climes (around February in California).
The most common U.S. variety, green asparagus, ranges in shade from light to medium green, with dark or purple tips. It varies in width and length but tends to be sold at around 8-10 inches. Its flavor is mildly sulphuric, mostly sweet and slightly nutty.
Like most green vegetables, asparagus is good for you. Among its healthful properties are folate, Vitamin C, potassium, inulin (which is said to be “prebiotic” and is known to aid in digestion), anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and possibly anti-cancer effects. (Read much more at World’s Healthiest Foods.) Asparagus has also been used medicinally as a laxative, and its cooking water has been used as a wash to treat acne.
What to look for
- The thinnest stalks possible – these are the most tender. Steer clear of the limp and the wilted.
- Closed tips – no offshoots.
- A fresh scent – give it a sniff and if it smells musty, give it a pass.
- If it’s bunched, try to find a bunch that is uniform in width, so that the spears will cook uniformly.
What to Do with It
Things go downhill for asparagus pretty rapidly, so try to eat it as soon as possible, but if you must wait, you can preserve your spring-y bounty by trimming the ends of the stalks and standing the bunch (still bound together – if you bought them loose, then tie them up for balance) in a cup of water in the refrigerator.
Some people peel asparagus, but unless you're dealing with exceptionally woody stalks, it is generally unnecessary. However, you absolutely should trim the end of each spear. The question is, how much should you trim before preparing? If you grasp a stalk with one hand around the root end at its furthest point, and the other about mid-way down the stalk and gently bend, wherever it breaks is where it should be trimmed to – this tip takes the guesswork out of trimming. Also, the French invented special tall, narrow pots for steaming asparagus that allow for the woody stems to immerse in the boiling water, while allowing the tender tips to remain out. (If you have a tall enough pot, you can achieve the same effect by binding your bunch with string or foil.)
The most important thing – by far – about preparing asparagus is not to overcook it. It is delicious raw, shaved or sliced quite thin, steamed or roasted or grilled (which enhances its nutty flavor).
Simple Roasted Asparagus
one bunch asparagus
a few glugs of extra virgin olive oil
half a lemon
salt and pepper
1. Preheat your oven to 400.
2. Snap off the bottoms of the stalks.
3. In a large bowl, toss asparagus in olive oil with salt and pepper.
4. On a cookie sheet or rack, roast until tender and lightly browned, about 15-20 min (depending on the thickness of the stalks).
5. Squeeze on lemon juice (or toss with lemon zest) and sprinkle with Parmesan.
Short of an actual grill, this is my favorite way to eat asparagus, but perhaps you like sauces too, in which case, break out some mayonnaise like my mom did – that and aioli are classic French accompaniments.
Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar through Preservation
Asparagus isn’t cheap. In general when it comes to farmers' market vegetables, buying more of whatever is in season and preserving some, and/or buying toward the end of the market day, or the end of the growing season, are good strategies for cutting back on cost. I think asparagus is best fresh, but if you choose to buy a bunch and preserve it, blanching it and then freezing it would work well. Drying for use in soups is another possibility, and of course, pickled asparagus is great in bloody marys and salads, so if you're a home canner, there’s that too.
But because its flavor is so of the moment, this harbinger of spring is best enjoyed fresh. So grab a bunch if you can, throw it into a salad or cook it up and let us know how it works out for you!
(*When it comes to eating fruits and vegetables, we think that first and foremost, people should eat a lot of them, whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, often carries a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)