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Asparagus 101

April 30 2012 - 11:15 AM

Shutterstock_100654192The asparagus is a vegetable and flowering perennial plant species that is a close cousin to garlic and onions. It is native to Europe, Northern Africa and Asia but can be found just about anywhere in the world.

While available year-round, spring is the best season for fresh asparagus, crops are harvested from late February to June but April is the best month for fresh or wild asparagus. The shoots are the early stalks of a plant that will eventually grow bigger and fern-like. The edible stalks are picked by hand before the stems are allowed to develop into the larger plant.

Growing and Foraging
When it comes to growing asparagus it is important to understand that there are male and female versions of the plant. The Mary Washington is the female version, which are set berries that are planted all over the garden. This method produces seedlings and lower quality shoots, it is not the most desirable for growers. The “Jersey night” is the male version that grows up to 20% more shoots per crown and typically has better taste and brighter colors. This is the version most growers are using today.

If you’re looking to find wild asparagus, you’re in luck, it grows just about anywhere in the United States and can typically be found along-side highways or railroads. When searching for wild asparagus forgers try to spot the dead over-grown plants from the year before then scavenge the grass around them in order to spot newer shoots. Some forgers go as far as marking the plants that bore asparagus the year before in order to easily find them the following season.

Asparagus comes in two different varietals; green (or purple) and white.  Green asparagus is the most commonly eaten asparagus and can easily be found at restaurants and grocery stores. White asparagus is more unique and not as popular in the United States but is considered a delicacy in Europe. It is white in color because it does the bulk of its growing under ground with limited exposure to the sun.

The varietals are very similar in taste fresh and nutty but can be prepared using four different methods:

  1. The first and easiest way to cook asparagus is to simply drop a handful in a pot of salted, boiling water and let cook for about a minute and a half.
  2. The second is grilled, which is my favorite way to cook it because it brings out the true nutty flavor of the vegetable. Place the asparagus on a hot grill without anything on them and cook until golden. (Using olive oil will cause the asparagus to over-caramelize and become bitter.)
  3. The third method is mainly used for cooking white asparagus and that is placing a bundle of white asparagus in salted, boiling water standing up right so the tips are not submerged. This allows the tips of the asparagus to get steamed and stay crunchy while thoroughly cooking the bottoms. Cook for 5 minutes in the water then take off the heat and let them stand for another 5 minutes.
  4. Finally baking is a fast and easy way to cook asparagus, place the shoots along the bottom of a baking sheet with a bit of salt and pepper and cook at 425 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.

Whether it’s boiled, baked or grilled, do yourself a favor and celebrate the resurrection of the asparagus andthe coming of spring with this delicious “pointy vegetable.”

Asparagus on wooden table via Shutterstock.

–Andrew Zapotosky