Spring Spears

Eating green is easy this month as fresh asparagus hits its flavor peak.

 asparagus

Whether you prefer spring asparagus steamed until crisp-tender and served with hollandaise sauce or slow-roasted with olive oil and sea salt, now is the time to indulge in this versatile and delicious vegetable.

May is the height of asparagus season, whether it’s grown locally or farther afield in top-producing states such as California or Michigan. The spears are the tender shoots of a 4-foot-tall fernlike perennial with bright red berries, Asparagus officinalis, which is a member of the lily family.

Since Greek and Roman times, this plant has been prized, and as long ago as the first century, it was considered to have powerful medicinal qualities. It’s certainly true that when it comes to health, asparagus is a powerhouse—it has more of the antioxidant gluthione than any other vegetable and is a good source of potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C, and thiamin. Domestically grown asparagus is likely to come in gorgeous shades of vivid green or dark purple, and varies in width from pencil-thin to as big around as your thumb. In Europe, the most popular type of asparagus is very fat, smooth-skinned and white; the blanched color results from burying the shoots underground while they grow and mature.

In comparison with other produce, asparagus tends to be expensive, mainly because of the way it is cultivated. The shoots become thick enough to be marketed only after two to three years; growers must always have some portion of their asparagus beds in a nonproductive state. In addition, the plant requires careful tending and hand harvesting.

When it comes to eating and enjoying asparagus, freshness is of the utmost importance, since the quality of its flavor and texture decreases quickly in storage. Simple food science explains why: After picking, asparagus continues to grow, consuming its own sugars more rapidly than almost any other common vegetable after the harvest. This quickly leads to flat flavor and a stalk that becomes increasingly woody and fibrous starting from the base up. Just-picked asparagus will always be your best bet in terms of quality, and that’s exactly what you’ll find at local farmers’ markets, which open this month.
 

All About Asparagus:

Locally grown asparagus is a top seller this time of year at markets such as the Citiparks Farmers’ Markets, which open at five locations May 14 (412/422-6523, city.pittsburgh.pa.us). You can also visit the Buy Fresh Buy Local website (buylocalpa.com) to find out which growers and farm stands in your area offer fresh asparagus. Here are some easy tips for making the most of this springtime treat.

Selection
Smooth skin, bright-green color and a fresh-looking cut on the bottom are all indicators of quality; avoid spears with cut ends that look dried out. Look for firm, compact heads on the tips of the spears. If the heads have started to elongate and spread apart, the plant may have started to bolt, which means it was harvested too late; this will translate into toughness and a bitter, grassy flavor.

Storage
To ensure the best storage, treat the bright-green, slender stems of asparagus as you would fresh flowers—place them cut-side down in 2 inches of tepid water and store in the refrigerator or wrap the ends in a moist paper towel and refrigerate in a plastic bag. For the best results, use within a couple of days.

Preparation
A centuries-old method of trimming asparagus still remains trustworthy today: Bend the stalk from tip to base. There will be a natural stress point where you can break apart the stalk, separating the tough lower portion from the tender top. If you prefer, you can also trim the ends by about one-quarter inch with a sharp knife. For the best results, peel any spears that are larger than the diameter of your little finger; holding the spear by the tip, peel downward using a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler. If you’re in doubt about whether to peel, bite into the raw vegetable—if the skin is tough and fibrous to the bite, it’s worth peeling.

Cooking

You may have seen the upright pots designed for cooking asparagus. They enable you to place bundled asparagus cut-side down into a perforated insert, which is lowered into a pot of boiling water so the tips stay above the water level—a time-honored French way to prepare it. Such equipment is by no means necessary, of course. You can boil asparagus in a large stockpot, use a steamer, slice it diagonally to about one-quarter-inch thick and sauté it, or peel and parboil it for a minute before grilling. It’s also delicious roasted.

Asparagus has less than 4 calories per spear.

Roasted Asparagus Two Ways:

Roasting intensifies and sweetens the naturally delicious flavor of asparagus. These two recipes take just seconds to prepare and always please a crowd.

Roasted Asparagus With Parmesan:
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a large glass baking dish, toss 1 pound of peeled, trimmed asparagus with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, salt and freshly ground pepper. Roast until the asparagus is just tender-crisp, about 10 minutes. Toss with 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese and serve immediately. If you like, you can substitute pecorino romano or asiago for the parmesan. Serves four.

Roasted Asparagus With Pesto:
Follow the instructions above, but toss the hot roasted asparagus with 2 tablespoons of store-bought pesto before serving. Serves four.
 

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