Crown Asparagus the King of Spring

If there was an election for the official vegetable of spring, asparagus would win in a landslide. It’s one of the first crops to be harvested in spring and it even looks like a flower whose buds are about to open.

Courtesy the California Asparagus Commission

It’s one of my favorite vegetables, which is something of a miracle since my first encounter with it wasn’t very positive. I was raised by my grandmother on her farm in North Central Illinois. Many people have wonderful stories of their grandmothers’ cooking – juicy pot roasts, flavorful sauces and yummy cookies. I’m afraid I’m not one of them. While Grandma had many marvelous talents (like touching her nose with her tongue), cooking wasn’t one of them. She’d rather eat out than cook, so from her I acquired a love for restaurants but no recipes.

I don’t remember much of what came out of Grandma’s kitchen, but the one thing I do remember is the asparagus.  A patch grew in front of our house and each spring Grandma picked the slim green stalks. She put them in a pan with a little water and boiled them down until they reached the point of being a green gelatinous mass looking something like slim from the Ghostbusters movies.  Needless to say, I never ate it and Grandma couldn’t understand why.

Once I became an adult and took over the kitchen responsibilities I leaned that boiling to the point of oblivion was no way to prepare asparagus, or much of anything else. With my culinary course corrected, asparagus and I became friends.

Asparagus is a slow grower, taking up to four years to produce edible stalks (but an established patch can produce for 30 to 40 years). This long lag time once made the vegetable so hard to find it was considered a luxury.  Now it’s available year round but its prime season is February through June, depending on where you live. In addition to green, it also comes in purple and white (popular in Europe) varieties.

When shopping, look for stalks that are firm, bright green with tight tips. Contrary to popular belief, stalk thickness doesn’t indicate tenderness, but rather the age of the plant it came from. The older the plant, the thicker the stalk (it’s sort of the same with people).

Asparagus is best prepared the same day you buy it, but if you must wait, store the stalks standing bouquet-style in a glass of water so they retains their freshness longer.  Because it grows in sandy soil, wash asparagus thoroughly to remove any grit that might be hiding in the tips. Nothing ruins a meal faster than a mouth of sand! Bend stalks in half until they break. The tops are the most tender and you can serve them steamed, roasted, grilled or stir-fried.  The tougher lower end are usually discarded, but they can also be used for creamy asparagus soup.

Steaming is the simplest way of preparing asparagus. I use a saucepan and an adjustable vegetable steamer basket. Using just a small amount of water it reaches the tender-crisp stage in minutes. You’ll know it’s done when a fork goes in readily with just a little bit of resistance.  But my new favorite is this simple and delicious recipe from Ina Garten

As I enjoy my tender-but-not-over-cooked asparagus, I can hear my Grandmother’s voice in my ear saying, “This is very nice, dear. But you didn’t cook it long enough.”

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