While living in Illinois, I belonged to a very secretive society, active for only one month a year. We all collected wild asparagus, escaped from cultivation and growing along fence lines. Sometimes we came across each other in the field, but we were cautious to avoid all contacts. We all had our secret patches where we had found asparagus in previous years and jealously guarded our favorite sites. Yet not infrequently, someone else beat us to our spot, and all we would find were asparagus stumps. Those were times when we cursed and wished the lucky finder cruel misfortunes. But I know I managed to beat others, too, and came home with a bagful of wonderful green spears from a spot first discovered by another.
Store asparagus like you would cut flowers—upright in a wide-mouthed container with a small amount of water in the bottom. The spears are still fully alive, and they need plenty of water to keep rigid and crisp. They also like high humidity. Loosely drape a plastic bag over the top to keep the moisture high but allowing enough air circulation to prevent murder by suffocation.
The bottom part of the spears is fibrous and tough; some cooks peel off the outer layer with a vegetable peeler. Others snap off the lower part and discard it.
Few vegetables are as delicious or as easy to prepare. To me, freshly blanched asparagus needs nothing else but a dash of salt. I blanch them in boiling salted water for four minutes for a still slightly crispy texture. If you like yours not quite as crispy, give them a minute or two more.
Because the thicker bottom ends of the edible portion cook slower than the thin tops of the spears, many cooks suggest cooking them in a tall pot with the tops sticking above the boiling water—steaming, rather than boiling, them and slowing down cooking a little. Few of us own a narrow tall pot. Instead I cut the spears in half, drop the bottom halves in the boiling water and a minute later add the top halves. Both ends come out just right from the hot bath.
It is good to cook extra and keep some for salads. They add nice crunch to your greens as well as their pleasing, bright flavor and color, thanks to the blanching process.
Locally available asparagus season is short—when it arrives, go wild and overdose on it.
A friend once opened a can of asparagus in front of me, plopped it on a plate and heated it up in the microwave. I could not believe my eyes; it was spring, the height of asparagus season. As a mild apology she said, “This way nothing can go wrong.”
Growers harvest asparagus at different stages for different preferences. On the West Coast, consumers like thin, tender stalks of a mild variety; elsewhere, American asparagus eaters prefer the fat jumbo stalks of a stronger-flavored, slightly bitter variety. For fullest flavor, choose the fat ones.
What is white asparagus? Same as the green, but the growers cover the emerging spears with black plastic sheets to block the sunlight so the green chlorophyll cannot develop. Chefs preferred white asparagus in the distant past, but today most of us like them in their natural green state. There is no noticeable difference in flavor.
Like strawberries, asparagus has to be hand-picked. The shoots grow at different rates, so pickers harvest from the same field repeatedly—we pay for this added labor cost, making asparagus more expensive than most other vegetables.
George Erdosh is a culinary scientist, food writer and certified cooking teacher (and now a cookbook reviewer) with a strong science and research background (Ph.D., McGill University, Montreal). Originally an exploration geologist for some 35 years, he switched career to be a high-end caterer, a business he ran for over 10 years, before switching to food writing and running cooking classes.
He is the author of 10 published food-related books: a six-book series for young readers Cooking throughout American History and The African-American Kitchen; Start and Run a Catering Business (in its 4th edition, translated into five languages), Tried and True Recipes from a Caterer’s Kitchen, and What Recipes Don’t Tell You, as well as numerous articles in magazines and newspapers.
Contact George with questions or problems at firstname.lastname@example.org.