After long winter months of scanty crops, root vegetables and tubers, the farmers market reawakens in spring – pulsing with energy and brimming with cheerful colors, enticing smells and delicious flavors that make for a full sensory experience. Strolling by the vibrant stands of produce, you'll find everything to fulfill the desires of re-awakened palates: fresh field strawberries, crisp green beans, plump artichokes, and bright green asparagus.
Perhaps because it’s only harvested during a brief six to seven-week period between the end of April and the beginning of June, asparagus is arguably the one vegetable most intimately associated with the arrival of spring. Sweet, succulent, and marvelously tender, asparagus lends itself to an assortment of fresh and delightful dishes.
Besides being tasty and full of flavor, asparagus is an abundant source of a wide variety of nutrients, making it an almost mandatory ingredient in every healthy and balanced diet. It is low in calories and sodium, and contains no fat. On the other hand, it supplies more folic acid than virtually any other vegetable and is an excellent source of potassium and vitamin B6.
Picking the best asparagus
When picking asparagus at the farmers market or at your local health food store, look for bundles with firm spears whose tips are closed, plump and green, and avoid dry, brownish looking spears.
Once you've made your pick, it’s very important to store your asparagus properly to keep it fresh and delicious, as it is a rather fragile vegetable. Wash it repeatedly in water until clean, pat it dry, and cut the harder stem ends – which are usually a lighter green – about an inch. Then wrap a moist paper towel around the stems and place them in a plastic bag or container in the refrigerator. Or, even better, stand them upright in a couple of inches of cold water.
If stored properly, asparagus will keep for 2 or 3 days.
Asparagus is best enjoyed fresh and in season, not frozen. But if you're an avid fan and want to savor it all year round, the freezer is your best option. (It’s true that you can find asparagus from Peru or Chile or even California at your local supermarket throughout the year, but then you wouldn’t be supporting your local family farms...) To freeze, wash the asparagus thoroughly, trim the stems' ends, and leave them whole or cut the spears as you wish. Blanch them (see below) in boiling water for 1 to 2 minutes only. Drain well and pack the asparagus in plastic freezer bags or containers, trying not to leave excess air space. Seal, label, and freeze at 0° F. You can use them for up to 8 months. Frozen asparagus doesn’t need to be defrosted before cooking, and make sure you don’t re-freeze previously frozen spears.
Although it’s perfectly safe to eat asparagus raw, it is much better if cooked. That’s when its sweet, luscious flavor is released in all its intensity. Try warm steamed asparagus with a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil and you'll be in heaven!
To blanch asparagus, drop it whole, or already cut, into a large pot of simmering water and leave it for about 3-4 minutes. Then drain and shock by running it under cold water or putting it in an ice bath. When blanched, the texture of asparagus becomes a little softer, but still crisp, and the color brightens up.
Why do you blanch asparagus? Usually to soften the texture a bit before using other, faster cooking methods such as stir-frying and sautéing.
Steaming is the perfect cooking method for a health-conscious diet because it utilizes very little or no fat. There is more than one technique for steaming asparagus, but the one that follows is tried and tested for guaranteed deliciousness.
In a large pot bring about 1 inch of water to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Fasten the asparagus stalks in a bundle with a string and place the bundle upright in the water. Cover and steam for 6 to 8 minutes or until tender. Alternatively, use a wide pan or Dutch oven and create a single layer of asparagus at the bottom (you may need to use less water). Cover and steam.
Stir-frying is a very quick cooking technique that uses relatively low amounts of fat and very high heat. The secret is to keep the food in constant motion in a wok or sauté pan. Once you've cut the asparagus spears in the desired shape (cutting them on a slant is always nice for stir-fry dishes), blanch them, then heat a small amount of oil in the pan over high heat. Once the oil is hot enough, add the asparagus and stir constantly until tender but still crisp on the surface, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Sautéing asparagus is fairly similar to stir-frying. While stir-frying is more often used in Asian-inspired recipes, sautéing is typical of Western cuisines. It’s the cooking method most often used to prepare asparagus as a side dish to meat or fish entrees or in sauces for pasta. With sautéing as well as with stir-frying, it’s preferable to use blanched asparagus for softer texture. In a skillet, heat up oil or butter, add the asparagus and cook, tossing occasionally until tender but still firm and crispy, about 3 to 5 minutes.