Spear-shaped, crisp and tender, asparagus is a dignified green vegetable that doesn’t scream for attention in produce aisles. But once you know how nutritious, delicious and easy it is to prepare, you’ll want to put it front-and-center on your plate.
Asparagus is a traditional, early-spring food. Green asparagus is most popular in the United States, while Europeans prefer the crisper and milder white asparagus.
Most asparagus available in grocery stores is harvested in California from February through May, and in the Midwest and East from May to July. The rest of the year, it’s grown in Mexico, Peru, France, Spain and other Mediterranean countries.
Try to purchase asparagus grown close to home, because it begins to lose its flavor after it’s harvested and can take on a woody texture as freshness wanes. Look for firm, round stalks with green or purple-colored, tightly closed tips. Stalks can be pencil-thin or finger-thick. Avoid withered spears and dry or slimy stem ends.
Asparagus is an excellent source of vitamins K, C and A, as well as folic acid, which is necessary for producing red blood cells. It is also a good source of potassium, fiber, B vitamins, manganese, copper and phosphorous. And best of all, it’s rich in health-promoting phytochemicals – compounds that fight cancer, inflammation and free-radicals.
Because asparagus causes most people to produce methanethiol (an essence similar to skunk spray), you may notice a peculiar odor in your urine after eating it. Not everyone can detect this smell, but if you can, don’t worry. It’s absolutely harmless.
- To remove the fibrous white base, bend the spear until it breaks. It will snap right where the tender part meets the tougher end.
- Because asparagus is grown in sandy soil, wash it thoroughly to remove the grit from the tips.
- To store: Trim the stems and stand them in a glass filled with 1 to 2 inches of water. Cover with a plastic bag and refrigerate for two to three days.
Always cook asparagus quickly. If it gets soft, it can lose its flavor. Avoid cooking it in iron pots: its tannins (naturally occurring plant polyphenols) will react with the iron, causing an unpleasant taste.
- You can serve asparagus cold after blanching, which brightens its color. Simply submerge the stalks in boiling water for a few seconds, then quickly cool them in ice water.
- For a quick sauté, cut asparagus into bite-size pieces and add to a hot frying pan with olive oil, chopped garlic, diced tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms. Sauté for one to two minutes. Before serving, season with lemon juice, soy sauce or balsamic vinegar, basil, parsley, tarragon, or rosemary.
- For grilled asparagus, mist spears with extra-virgin olive oil and add a touch of balsamic vinegar, freshly ground pepper and sea salt. Grill for five minutes, rotating the stalks every minute.
Chef Cary Neff is president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).