Asparagus enjoy a worldwide popularity, and many parts of the planet see to its availability year-round. American production and harvesting starts in California in March and works its way across the country over the warmer months.
The Greeks were the first to cultivate this vegetable about 2500 years ago. (“Asparagus” is Greek for “stalk” or “shoot.”) They are a member of the lily family, like artichokes, and during their seasonal peak, an asparagus shoot can grow up to 10 inches a day. While many treasure the pencil-thin variety, growers claim that the wider the diameter, the better the quality.
Asparagus are nutritionally dense. They’re high in folic acid, potassium, fiber, thiamin, Vitamins B6, A and C (one serving contains 20% of your daily dose of Vitamin C!). They contain no fat or cholesterol and are naturally low in sodium.
When buying asparagus, spears should be sturdy and brightly colored, with no separation at the tip. Choose bunches where the spears are of the same width so they will cook evenly. Despite their sturdiness, asparagus are relatively perishable and should be eaten within a couple of days of purchase. It’s best not to wash them until ready for use. Keep them loosely wrapped in a plastic bag or stand them upright in a large jar or other container with an inch or so of water, like a cut flower.
When preparing asparagus, cut away the woody end of the stalk (it’s whiter than the more tender, green part) or snap off the bottoms at their natural breaking point by grabbing the stalk about halfway down and at the very bottom and gently bending until it breaks. While it’s not always necessary, many like to peel the tougher, lower stalk of the spear, which can be woody or chewy. Be careful not to peel more than halfway up the stalk, or the upper portion can get too soft and mushy.
White Asparagus are festive and dramatic in appearance and taste barely more delicate than their green siblings. Whiteness is achieved by growing the spears completely covered in soil, preventing the plant from photosynthesizing. The one thing to watch out for is toughness down the stalk, which almost contradicts their dainty appearance. Most white asparagus like to have about 2/3 of their lower stalk peeled.
Purple Asparagus were an Italian invention, achieved by allowing the spears a little sunlight. Asparagus naturally turn purple in their transition to greenness and a harvested earlier. They tend to be higher in natural sugars, and a little stronger in flavor.