Raw, steamed, roasted or grilled—we love our asparagus any way it’s served up. Whether you prefer yours bright green or pale white, here are the tips, tricks and easy recipes you need to enjoy asparagus to the fullest.
How to Buy
Asparagus begins to lose its natural sweetness the minute it’s picked, so you want to buy the freshest bunch possible. Look for firm, bright green, unblemished spears with tightly closed tips. Check the bottoms—if the cut ends are dry and shrivelled, skip that lot and look for a fresher one. If the tips are frayed and wet, that’s another sign of age.
Some people prefer thin spears because they have a grassier, more vegetal flavour than thicker ones. But the latter are juicier and more to other people’s tastes. The choice is up to you.
When to Buy
One of the surest signs of spring is local asparagus hitting the produce aisle. While the Canadian asparagus season runs through May and June, you can buy imported asparagus (both white and green) year-round.
If you find several great bunches all at once, it’s worth pickling some to enjoy later. You can swap asparagus for green beans in this quick pickle recipe, but use tarragon instead of dill. Pickled asparagus is delicious on a ham and cheese sandwich or as part of an antipasto platter.
Wait, Is White Asparagus Different?
Nope—it’s the same plant just grown differently. Asparagus spears are the tender shoots of a fern-like plant that can grow four feet (1.2 metres) tall. If you deprive those shoots of sunlight, they can’t produce green-hued chlorophyll and you end up with white asparagus.
Farmers do this by mounding dirt around the spears or by covering them with black plastic tunnels. Either way, it’s a ton of work, which is why white asparagus is pricier than green. But if you like its mild sweetness, it may be worth the splurge for summer long weekends or special backyard barbecues. Try white asparagus steamed until buttery soft—it takes longer to cook than green—and serve it warm with Hollandaise sauce.
How to Store
Asparagus is most delicious when you cook it the same day you buy it. But it will keep in the fridge for a few days if you don’t have time to eat it right away. Stand it in a tall dish with the cut ends in 1 inch (5 cm) of water to keep the stalks crisp.
How to Wash
Since asparagus is often grown in sandy soil, you’ll need to give it a good cleaning. Swirl the spears in a large bowl of cold water, letting any grit sink to the bottom. Lift the spears out with your hands.
How to Prep
Snap. To trim the woody cut ends—which are too fibrous to eat—grab a spear with both hands toward the bottom. Bend the base and the stalk will naturally break where the spear goes from tough to tender. You can save the ends to make vegetable stock.
To peel or not to peel? Chefs often insist on peeling thick green asparagus, but most home cooks don’t bother. It’s up to you. You should, however, peel the tough skin off white asparagus. Use a sharp swivel peeler and press gently.
The sweet, nutty, grassy flavour of asparagus pairs well with citrus, fresh herbs, cheese (especially goat cheese) and eggs.
How you cook asparagus sometimes depends on its thickness. Pencil-thin spears, for example, are not great for grilling—they have a bad habit of falling through the grate! Thin asparagus is also easy to overcook, which is why it works well puréed in Roasted Asparagus Soup with Tzatziki. It can also be quickly blanched and folded into rich Asparagus & Spring Gouda Risotto.
Extra-thick spears can be sliced into long, very thin ribbons and served raw—yes, raw!—in light, crunchy Shaved Asparagus Salad with Lemon-Pesto Dressing. To shave asparagus, lay a spear on a cutting board and use a sharp Y-shaped peeler. Press firmly, cutting from the bottom to the tip.
Thick spears cook in minutes on a hot barbecue and are tasty when given light, smoky grill marks. Try them in Grilled Asparagus with Sesame Vinaigrette or baste the spears in a tangy maple-mustard glaze for Grilled Rack of Lamb with Asparagus.
No grill? No problem! Asparagus is equally delicious when roasted in a hot oven, which sweetly caramelizes its exterior. Roasted Asparagus with Red Pepper Relish is great with fish, chicken or pork. Or bake up a crisp, golden Mushroom & Asparagus Strudel, and serve it with a green salad for a vegetarian brunch.
The good news is you can make asparagus ahead. First, blanch it in a saucepan of boiling salted water. Then dunk it in ice water to stop the cooking process and bring that vibrant green colour to life. Serve it drizzled with your favourite Sensations by Compliments Salad Dressing, or cut it into pieces for Asparagus, Tomato & Goat Cheese Quinoa Salad or Chicken-Asparagus Tabbouleh.