Once asparagus was a member of the lily family, along with leeks, onions, and garlic. Recently it was made into its own family, the Asparagaceae, but that has not changed its status as the official harbinger of spring for some, nor does that diminish its appeal and wonderful flavor. Asparagus, like fava beans, artichokes, and fresh peas, has a uniquely “green” taste to it that is hard to put into words, but when tasted can evoke so many thoughts and feelings related to fresh growth and springtime.
Although China and Peru now make it possible to get asparagus year round, our local season runs from about March through May or June, and April is prime-time when it is at its peak. Grocery store asparagus, even the stuff from California (which produces around 70% of the asparagus grown in the USA), just does not have the same flavor as the spears you will find at the farmers markets, nor will you usually find the variety of colors and sizes you can find as well.
From hefty spears the size of a Churchill cigar to delicate pencil thin ones, asparagus comes in the usual green as well as purple which ranges from a delicate blush to a deep night-like shade, to white. You won’t find white at this market, but the other shades, as well as the sizes, are all here. White asparagus is a type that turns green except that dirt or sand is mounded up to keep the spears in the dark as they grow, a technique that takes a lot of labor as some asparagus can grow as much as 10 inches in 24 hours.
When selecting asparagus, consider what role they will play on the table as some sizes are better suited to different dishes and can be prepped in different ways. Spears need nothing more than to be snapped at the natural break point and will take well to blanching, steaming, sautéing, and are best for baking with, as in a quiche or frittata, as they are thin enough to cook all the way through and will not exude so much liquid that it waters down the dish.
Thin, Thick or ?
Thin spears tend to be drier textured and have a flavor that is “more” — a little more intense, green, grassy, with hints of bitter.
Medium sized spears are versatile, and can be cooked all of the above ways-provided you cut the asparagus for baking- as well as roasting and grilling. They can be shaved raw for salads as well. Although you can snap the stems for prep, you will get a bigger yield if you slice off the bottom and then use a peeler to take off the bottom 2-3 inches of skin.
The fattest spears may be blanched, but really shine when roasted, grilled, or sautéed. They are also excellent raw as they tend to be quite succulent and sweeter, especially if they are the purple variety. They even take well to marinating. These you definitely want to trim the bottom inch or so and peel until the skin is tender.
Although asparagus is perfect on its own with just a little embellishment such as oil, butter, lemon, or mayonnaise, asparagus plays well with other vegetables, especially the other “green” tasting ones such as favas, peas, and artichokes. They also work beautifully with mushrooms, especially King oyster, regular oyster, and morels-, leeks, and potatoes, and green garlic. Other flavors to consider are nuts — hazels, almonds, and pine. Citrus flavors such as lemon, mandarin or blood orange, and the richness of eggs are classic too. Think of hollandaise sauce, Maltaise sauce, or poached or fried eggs. Grated hard-boiled eggs (known as mimosa in French cuisine) are also used.
An ideal way to greet spring with asparagus would be a gentle braise of different color asparagus of various thicknesses simmered in stock with leeks, green garlic, sugar snap peas, slivers of baby artichokes, and if they have shown up this week, young fava beans and small new potatoes.
When buying asparagus and thinking it is pricey, keep in mind it takes three years before the plants start to produce. Each spear has to be hand cut, and each plant only produces for 5 to 7 weeks.
Look for green asparagus at V&V Farms. For purple asparagus, you can sometimes find it at T & L Coke Farm booth, but you need to be there early as it sells out fast.
RECIPES: Basic Grilled Asparagus, How to Cook Asparagus, Salad of Asparagus “Carpaccio”, Poached Eggs with Asparagus and Healthier Meyer Lemon Hollandaise, Asparagus and Crab Hollandaise, Asparagus, Brie, and Oyster Mushroom Bread Pudding, Asparagus, Spinach, and Green Garlic Strata, Diary Free Creamy Asparagus Soup, Cream of Asparagus Soup, Easy Creamy Orzo with Asparagus and Parmesan, Roasted Portobello Mushrooms and Asparagus, Roasted Baby Artichokes and Asparagus with Lemon-Oregano Aioli, Sauté of Thick Asparagus and Oyster Mushrooms, Primavera Braise with Asparagus, Sugar Snap Peas, Fava, Leeks, and Artichokes