Make the most of fresh asparagus before it’s gone

May 25, 2018

Many of the growers at our local farmers markets have offered asparagus for sale since the markets opened in the spring. Yet it's almost the end of the all-too-brief asparagus season, which runs from April through May. This week and next may be your last opportunities to enjoy the flavor and texture of fresh asparagus from nearby farms.

We've heard the adage to "eat local" and the restaurant trend of "farm to table," and most of us agree the quality of freshly picked produce is superior to what travels long distances before reaching our tables. That said, asparagus provides a clear example of why it's a good practice.

The growth habit of asparagus is to spend nine months of the year producing tall, feathery stalks to feed the root system known as the crown. In the spring, this is mowed, and the plants send up new stalks, growing to their mature length in about 24 hours. Daily and by hand, these delicate asparagus spears need to be trimmed from their crown as soon as the fresh stalks appear.

If you look at a bunch of asparagus sitting in a bin of water at the grocery store, you'll see what happens after harvest. When cut from the crown, the stalks begin to deposit fibrous cellulose compounds in their cell walls. The cut ends of supermarket stalks will appear whitish and woody instead of moist and green. Imagine the condition of asparagus shipped from the West Coast.

Understanding this transformation of asparagus is useful when preparing it for use in a recipe. The standard technique for trimming a spear is to hold the top in one hand, the base in the other hand and bend it until it snaps. Kitchen lore says that where it breaks is just above the fibrous section, separating the tender top at the ideal location. However, this is not a foolproof maneuver, since you can sometimes force a break depending upon where you hold the spear and how you apply pressure. A better technique is to select one stalk and cut it where the white base transitions to green. Look at the cross section to make sure it's moist and tight; if you see any dry spots or open pockets, trim it a bit more. Then, line up the tops of the spears and cut them the same length, using the first one as the guide.

Peeling or shaving the lower portion of the stalk is another bit of asparagus advice that may not always work. All you're doing is removing some of the outer flesh, not any of the fibrous interior at the base. And the thickness of the stalk doesn't necessarily indicate freshness (unless it's spindly and pitted, a sure sign of age). The choice of thin spears or thick should be based on personal preference and how you plan to prepare them.

Slender stalks are best for dishes requiring little or no cooking, such as stir-fry or salad. Save the thicker spears for steaming or roasting, keeping in mind they don't need much time in the heat to become mushy. If you happen to overcook asparagus stalks, don't serve them whole; use them chopped in quiche or pureed into soup.

I've included recipes for a creamy asparagus soup (made without any cream), a frittata with leeks, and roasted asparagus garnished with toasted pine nuts. But, if your supply is fresh enough, you don't need to cook it at all, just shave slivers into your favorite salad or toss the tips into an omelet. And a final bit of vegetable lore – our ancestors considered asparagus an aphrodisiac.

Cream of Asparagus Soup 

2 lbs green asparagus 
1 chopped onion 
2 T butter 
5 C vegetable broth 
1/2 t lemon juice 
white pepper & salt, to taste 

Rinse asparagus to remove any clinging soil. Trim tips from asparagus about 1 inch from the top; set aside for garnish. Trim woody ends from asparagus and discard. Cut remaining spears into 1/2-inch pieces. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium. Add onion and cook until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add chopped asparagus and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often. Add vegetable broth and cover pan. Cook over medium low until asparagus is completely softened, about 20 minutes. Using an immersion blender or food processor, puree mixture until smooth. Stir in lemon juice and season to taste with white pepper and salt. To serve, scatter reserved asparagus tips into 6 soup bowls and pour in hot soup. Yield: 6 servings.

Asparagus & Leek Frittata 

12 oz asparagus 
2 T butter 
1 C chopped leeks 
1 C sliced shiitake mushrooms 
8 eggs 
1 C diced fontina cheese 
1/2 t salt 
1/2 t white pepper 
1/4 C grated Parmesan cheese 

Trim woody ends from asparagus and discard. Cut spears into one-inch pieces on the diagonal; set aside. Preheat broiler. Melt butter in an ovenproof skillet over medium low. Add leeks and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Stir in asparagus and mushrooms; sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, 3/4 C fontina cheese, salt and white pepper until smooth. Pour egg mixture into skillet and use a spatula to combine with wilted vegetables. Cook over low heat until almost set. Sprinkle with remaining fontina and Parmesan cheese. Place under broiler and cook until puffed and golden, about 3 minutes. Yield: 4 servings.

Roasted Asparagus 

1 lb asparagus 
2 T vermouth 
2 T olive oil 
salt & pepper, to taste 
1/2 C pine nuts 
1/2 t lemon zest 
juice of 1 lemon 
2 oz shaved Parmesan cheese 

Preheat oven to 450 F. Trim the asparagus and place in a shallow baking pan. Drizzle with vermouth and olive oil, then toss to coat thoroughly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until tender-crisp and brown spots appear, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a dry skillet over medium high, toast the pine nuts until fragrant and lightly browned; set aside. Transfer roasted asparagus to a serving platter and toss with lemon zest and juice. Garnish with toasted pine nuts and Parmesan cheese. Yield: 3 to 4 servings.