The arrival of asparagus at farmer’s markets makes it official: spring has finally sprung. Thick or thin, green, white, or even purple, asparagus reins supreme for a few short months — beginning in March or April, and ending sometime in early June. It’s said that this member of the lily family was the favorite vegetable of Thomas Jefferson. King Louis XIV of France was another fan, referring to it as the “king of vegetables.” Today, it retains its hoity-toity reputation, with chefs devising entire tasting menus to showcase its bright, springy flavor. For home chefs, asparagus can lend a sophisticated feel to an ordinary weeknight dinner, not to mention an Easter feast.
Closely related to garlic, onions, and leeks, asparagus is high in fiber, and a good source of iron, vitamin C and folate.
While thickness is a matter of taste, there’s no arguing about freshness. Choose stalks that are bright in color and firm, with tightly closed tips. Avoid any spears that are bent, or have open flowers. Wrap the ends of a bunch of asparagus in a wet paper towel, place in the crisper drawer and store up to three days. For best results, though, cook asparagus the same day you purchase it. In addition to tasting better, fresher asparagus will also retain more Vitamin C.
To prepare asparagus, rinse the spears first in cool water. To trim, hold a spear in both hands, placing your thumbs together where the stem looks woody and pale. Bend the stalk until it snaps. It should naturally break where the asparagus is tough. If you like, save the ends to throw into a vegetable stock. If you’re using white asparagus, you may want to use a vegetable peeler to trim away the tough skin from the base of each stalk.
What to do with asparagus
Probably the most common way to cook asparagus is to steam it — there are even steamer inserts and pots sold for this sole purpose, though they are certainly not necessary. Enlivened with a pat of butter and perhaps a squeeze of lemon and served alongside fish or chicken, steamed asparagus makes a simple and tasty side dish. But asparagus is hearty enough to stand up to a variety of different cooking methods. Roasting or grilling it will soften its slightly acidic bite and emphasize its sweet, earthy side.
Whatever you do, don’t just relegate this vegetable to the side-dish category. Tossed with pasta, a pinch of lemon zest, sliced scallions and a handful of Parmesan cheese, it serves as an elegant vegetarian main. It’s also a natural fit with fresh shelling peas or snap peas in risotto. To make a visually appealing soup, cook the sliced spears in a little chicken broth and puree with a touch of cream.
Asparagus is traditionally paired up with another symbol of spring, eggs. Try topping steamed asparagus with a shower of chopped hard-boiled eggs, minced shallots, and fresh herbs. Or incorporate it into a hearty frittata and serve with a fresh green salad for a light dinner or lunch.
Another common partner for asparagus is ham or prosciutto. Something about that long, pencil shape makes people want to wrap it with a slice of salty, cured pork. If you can resist that urge, you might try a healthier alternative: serve steamed asparagus with a just a sprinkling of minced ham, crisp bacon, or slivers of prosciutto and offer it up as an appetizer or side dish.
Even raw, asparagus holds it own. Shaved into long, thin pieces and dressed simply with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt and freshly ground pepper, it makes an appealing salad.
Recipes to try:
Abigail Chipley is a freelance recipe developer, writer and cooking teacher who lives in Portland, Oregon.