What You Need To Know About The “Queen Of Vegetables”
Although we are able to get almost every type of fruit or vegetable throughout the year due to global imports and exports, I prefer to use seasonal and locally grown fresh food whenever possible.
This time of year is especially famous for asparagus (at least in the temperate zones in the northern hemisphere). And it is truly a delicacy.
In Europe, Germany is the largest producer of this specialty. The worldwide leader of production is China, followed by Peru. The season only lasts a couple of weeks, and makes fresh asparagus an expensive but highly desired food.
The green and white varieties are the two common types of asparagus. These different colors result from different methods of cultivating the vegetables. White asparagus is grown under the soil or various other coverings (keeping it from the sun and eliminating or reducing chlorophyll development).
And white spears with violet tips grow with their ends protruding on the surface, where they can receive a touch of sunlight.
The green variety has completely pierced though the soil during the growing process and is then cut. As this type needs more time to grow, they are often available later in season.
The difference in taste is not as great as one might think. White spears have a delicate and mild aroma, while you can find a savory but subtle flavor when you decide to have the white-violet variety. If you prefer yours more crisp and intense, you should choose the green ones.
A word of caution – the plant contains and amino acid known as asparagine as well as potassium, which work as diuretic agents. About 40% of people lack the enzyme required to break down the aspartic acid found in asparagus, and in combination with a variety of other compounds found in the vegetable, a sulfurous odor may result when you have eaten a certain quantity.
End result – you may need to go to the bathroom, and it may have that signature smell. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying a wonderful and healthy dish.
So, what do you need to know?
Here are some tips to check whether asparagus is fresh and of a good quality:
Is it strong and sturdy? The asparagus should not feel rubbery and pressure marks should not result when you touch or try to bend it.
Look At It
If it is dry, it’s probably an older, tougher stalk that will need to be peeled. Is it shiny? If there are any brown discolorations or the spears look dry, you’d be better off looking in another supermarket, or better yet at a farmer’s market.
Have a look at the cut surface at the end of the spear. Ideally, some juice should come out if you squeeze gently. Also, be on the lookout for hollow asparagus stalks.
Take a look at the tip of the stalks as well. If it’s white (or green) and still closed, you can be sure it is good quality. An opened tip may simply indicate that it was not harvested as early as the pure white ones or baby varieties.
In the US, some “farmer’s markets” allow vendors to sell fruits and vegetables from any source – try to find one that limits sellers to providing produce that they have grown themselves, or that are at least locally grown.
The squeak test is a reliable procedure to assist you in checking the quality of this type of produce. Take two spears and rub them against each other – if you hear them squeaking, the food is fresh.
If there is nothing to smell, there is nothing to taste. The vegetable should exude a light aroma.
Here’s another tip:
If you’re buying your groceries at the farmer’s market or you have a good relationship with the produce manager, ask for broken asparagus spears. Here in Germany, this is a great way to get a good bargain because many people only want the long and good-looking spears – and the merchants want to sell them, of course.
When you’re planning to cook a soup with them, it doesn’t really matter if the spears are perfect. At the very least, you will cut them up, and you may even run them through a food processor or a food mill and cream them for use in certain recipes.
In the US Midwest and some southern states, it’s possible to find wild or “volunteer” asparagus growing the fence line along the road. I tend to look along gravel roads, as there is a less of a possibility of pollution. Be careful about trespassing and stick to the state or county right of ways, unless you have permission to enter the field and forage wherever it may be growing.
It is important is to peel the larger stalks, because the skin is fibrous and unpleasant to eat. When using the green variety, it’s often enough to peel the lower third of more mature spears. The technique is the same as when you’re peeling carrots.
There are specially designed asparagus peelers such as the Westmark version shown above, but a common vegetable peeler will do. You just have to be careful that you don’t peel off too much of the tender part of the vegetable, wasting some of it.
You should shorten the spear at the end as well, as this part can be stringy or bitter. The asparagus tips, however, should not be thrown away. On the contrary, this part is the most tender and flavorful part of the stalk.
You can simply chop off the lower part of the stalk, or bend to see where the stalks want to break naturally. This may be a better technique if you grow your own asparagus and have a bumper crop, or access to a cheap supply. Use the tougher pieces that you’ve discarded in a homemade vegetable stock.
There are various ways to cook asparagus, from mixed in a spring lemon risotto to roasting. But many say the best way is to boil it lightly with the spears standing upright in the pot. By the way, there are indeed specially designed asparagus pots made for this purpose, with an integrated strainer. Only the lower part of the vegetable is submerged in the water while the rest is gently steamed.
So if asparagus is – or becomes – one of your favorite seasonal foods, you might consider getting a dedicated cooking vessel. If you prefer to enjoy it from time to time, you will be fine using a cooking pot that you already have at home.
The classic way of preparing asparagus is boiling. Where I come from, many restaurants serve it the old-school way, which means combining the vegetable with melted butter or hollandaise sauce, cooked ham and new potatoes. Check out this fabulous Eggs Benedict recipe for a great hollandaise sauce that you can make in your blender.
The easiest way to prepare this veggie is to cook it lying in a large sauce pan, or a short but wide stock pot or brazier.
Add just enough water barely cover the stalks. Add a dash of salt and some sugar to taste, a splash of lemon juice, and a chunk of butter.
The lemon juice helps to maintain their bright color, and sugar can counteract the bitter compounds found in the vegetable.
Turn your stove on medium-low and let it simmer. It usually takes 5 to 10 minutes until they’re ready – depending on the type, size, and color of the spears (green needs less time to cook than white).
Also, the longer you cook them, the softer they will get. So if you like your vegetables a bit more firm, shorten your cooking time
Alternatively, you can cook this seasonal produce in the oven. Place the spears in a baking dish. Add salt, sugar, butter and water and cover with aluminum foil. Bake at 180°C/360°F for up to 40 minutes (depending on the size of the stalks). This is the best method if you like your asparagus more intensely flavored.
You can take off the foil for the last third of the baking time and the added sugar will caramelize, giving your dish a more aromatic taste.
Try our recipe for roasted asparagus with walnut crema and pecorino cheese to enjoy this method of cooking!
If you prefer a more crunchy sensation, you can also lightly steam this veg for 3 to 5 minutes, or sauté it.
Another nice way to prepare asparagus at home would be to roast or even grill it in the summer, with olive oil and herbs.
If you want to enjoy this vegetable throughout the year, you can also to freeze it. Use fresh spears only, peel them (if required) and put them into freezer bags.
You can keep freezer burn away by packing them with a vacuum sealer rather than using plain plastic bags, but this is not a requirement. I like to cut them into small pieces so I can have a portion ready whenever I feel like adding some to a soup or a vegetable side dish.
Simply place the frozen asparagus in some boiling water and simmer until ready. Sure, the taste and aroma won’t be the same as fresh, but it’s a great away to store it and it’s much better than canned.
For fresh eating, you can store your farmer’s market haul in the fridge for up to three days. Wet a kitchen towel, wrap it completely around the asparagus, and put the in your vegetable drawer in the fridge.
Or, try standing asparagus in a tall container filled with a few inches of water in the fridge, and tent with a plastic bag.
Here are two easy and quick springtime recipes for asparagus:
Fruity Asparagus Salad
This salad is not just incredibly easy to make, but also a fresh and healthy choice for a light meal. You can vary the kind of fruit that’s used to suit your tastes.
I once tried making this with sliced mango, and it was a delicious combination. Or, add a diced avocado for an additional kick of nutrients.
Quick And Creamy Asparagus Soup
This soup doesn’t use heavy cream or added fat, yet it is really smooth and refreshing to eat.
Although white asparagus is the preferred variety to use in this dish when it’s made in Germany, it is also made with the green type when they’re in season, as is shown here.
About Nina-Kristin Isensee
Nina lives in Iserlohn, Germany and holds an MA in Art History (Medieval and Renaissance Studies). She is currently working as a freelance writer in various fields. She enjoys travel, photography, cooking, and baking. Nina tries to cook from scratch every day when she has the time and enjoys trying out new spices and ingredients, as well as surprising her family with new cake creations.