All About Asparagus

With recipes for

On a mid-September afternoon some years ago I was walking by Fairway Market on New York’s Upper West Side. I noticed a produce worker removing asparagus from its familiar shoeshine box-like wooden crate. Asparagus? In September? Where on earth could this quintessential spring vegetable be coming from in September? A closer look at the crate revealed the answer: Peru.

Peru has been the world’s second largest producer of asparagus for several years, though it’s not likely to overtake number one China, which produces more than the rest of the world combined. Peru and Mexico are the two biggest exporters to the United States, supplying Americans with 98 percent of imported asparagus. However, Peru has the advantage of being in the Southern Hemisphere. Thus, it is producing asparagus when no one else is, from July  to January. In fact, the mild and constant temperatures along its coast allows Peru to produce asparagus just about year-round.

(I don’t ever recall seeing Chinese asparagus in US markets, which isn’t surprising because China is the world’s largest consumer of asparagus.)

Technically, asparagus can grow in many parts of the world at different times. But the same could be said for tomatoes. So is asparagus in September like tomatoes in January?

asparagus2“That’s the way I think about it,” Bill Telepan told me some years ago. Telepan is a highly regarded chef in New York, who is one of the leaders of the farm-to-table movement. Despite pressure to put asparagus on the menu year round, Telepan doesn’t serve asparagus until April. Even then he relegates the California asparagus he gets to cooked dishes like homemade pasta with asparagus, morels, and cream. For cold preparations like his sensational asparagus salad with pistachios and baby greens, he waits for local New Jersey asparagus in May and June.

The pressure on chefs like Telepan got more intense because the volume of Peruvian asparagus exports to the United States increased dramatically from just under 10 million kilos in 1997 to just over 130 million kilos in 2012. Asparagus exports became so plentiful that Peter Warren, general manager of Americas Produce, one of the largest importers of Peruvian asparagus, told me “We don’t have enough airplanes to get it out of Peru. Asparagus is rapidly approaching the salmon category when it will be not only year round but plentiful and much cheaper.”

While Peruvian asparagus is still abundant, it isn’t as cheap as it used to be and not quite as plentiful, as Peruvian agriculture becomes more diversified.  Still, Peruvian asparagus is a marvelous case study. How did they do it? “Peru has rewritten the asparagus book,” Warren said. The traditional thinking was that asparagus had to lie dormant for a few months in cold weather. But Peruvian asparagus is grown in the dessert, where asparagus3dormancy is created by not watering instead of cold weather. This forced dormancy allows harvesting to be programmed for a specific date with 85 percent accuracy, according to Warren. In addition, dense planting, much like dense planting of grapes for wine, has resulted in bigger spears and in yields that are two to three times that of California and quadruple those of Mexico. Now, said Warren, “People don’t go to California to learn about asparagus, they go to Peru.”

But is there a difference in quality between California and Peruvian asparagus? Tony Merola, a consultant to the produce industry—which colloquially calls asparagus “grass” – says no. “Grass is grass. There is no difference in taste unless you’re talking about very, very local,” he says.

Indeed, Peru uses the same UC-157 strain of asparagus, (developed at the University of California at Davis) that is grown commercially in 80 percent of the world, including California. But freshness is another story. Peruvian asparagus doesn’t reach stores or restaurant plates for six or seven days after harvesting. Still, Warren says asparagus can last up to 14 days and “you couldn’t tell the difference between asparagus that is one, five or 10 days old, if all were kept under optimum conditions.”

asparagus6The last time I compared end-of-the-season Peruvian asparagus and early California asparagus, the California asparagus had a brighter, deeper asparagus flavor. The Peruvian was more bland, though the difference was a bit less noticeable when both cooled.

While the vast amount of asparagus we consume is green, the popularity of white asparagus is increasing. Restaurants tend to use it more in supporting rather than starring roles because it can cost twice as much as green asparagus. White asparagus can grow to the same size as green asparagus except that it is kept under earth, away from sunlight. I’ve never been a fan of white asparagus, and a tasting of Peruvian and California white asparagus didn’t change my mind. Both were fibrous with a woody, watery, and somewhat bitter taste reminiscent of Belgian endive but not of asparagus.

asparagus8You’d think with all this asparagus that Americans would be gorging on it like tortilla chips. But while per capita consumption has increased, that increase has been relatively modest, from 1.3 pounds in 2003 per capita to 1.7 pounds in 2012. That’s about half of Germany’s consumption.

Warren says one reason why Americans don’t consume more asparagus is that we prepare it rather conventionally. “In other parts of the world they do all kinds of things with asparagus like putting it on pizza and in sandwiches,” he says. In Michigan, the third largest asparagus producing state (after California and Washington), the Michigan Asparagus Board is hoping to generate more interest in asparagus with asparagus guacamole and asparagus salsa.

Despite Warren’s comment, asparagus aficionados tend to favor simple preparations. Janet Fletcher, author of Fresh from the Farmers’ Market, likes asparagus grilled after it has been blanched, then rolled in olive oil. Traci Des Jardins, chef of Jardiniere in San Francisco, cooks asparagus in a skillet with olive oil or butter and a half-cup of water until the water evaporates, creating a simple sauce accented with lemon juice. For an easy hors d’oeuvres you can’t beat chilled asparagus wrapped with prosciutto.

asparagus4James Peterson, author of Vegetables, likes to serve asparagus by itself as a first course, the way the French do, in a vinaigrette and especially with hollandaise. Fletcher’s boiled asparagus topped with creamy scrambled eggs made in a double boiler is an out-of-this-world starter or breakfast. Eggs are a natural asparagus accompaniment, as are wild mushrooms like porcini and morels, and other spring vegetables, like snap peas and spring onions, perhaps all combined in a simple ragout. Pasta and risotto are also prime vehicles for asparagus.

Asparagus is generally sold in one-pound bunches in six sizes: pencil, small, standard (or medium), large, extra large, and jumbo. Though many think smaller asparagus are more flavorful, for me, the thicker the better. Regardless of size, fresh asparagus should be firm with dark and compact tips. The medium green color with purple highlights should extend down at least 85 percent of the spear. The bottoms should show no signs of decay and should be kept on damp pads or in water. Over-the-hill asparagus has a rotting odor.

Most asparagus doesn’t need peeling. Instead, hold the top half of one spear in one hand and the bottom half with the thumb and forefinger of the other hand. Bend each spear until it snaps naturally where the tough and tender parts meet. For very large spears, peeling promotes even cooking.

asparagus5If you’re only cooking a pound of asparagus, an inch or two of boiling salted water in a covered skillet will do the job in 4 to 6 minutes, depending on size. Figure 3 to 5 minutes if you’re going to reheat the asparagus later for a side dish (perhaps sautéed with sliced morels). If the latter, immediately chill the asparagus in ice water to stop the cooking and retain the green color.

A serving of five asparagus spears, (93 grams, about 3 1/4 ounces) has only 20 calories and contains 5 grams of carbohydrates and 2 grams each of dietary fiber and protein. Asparagus also has good amounts of potassium (248 mg), vitamins A and C – each 10% of the Recommend Daily Allowance – and fair amounts of iron and calcium, each 2% of the RDA.

Asparagus has high levels of folic acid, a B-vitamin that has been shown in recent years to minimize certain birth defects. And for prospective dads, asparagus also contains glutathione, an important antioxidant that helps to maintain healthy sperm. Glutathione also helps prevent the progression of cataracts and has strong cancer fighting properties.

asparagus7Though wines are not usually considered asparagus friendly, I found several that were. Sauvignon blanc’s acidity and herbal or grassy qualities made it the clear choice. Because it had stronger citrus notes, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc worked better with salads than a Sancerre. Also try Chenin Blanc, especially from France and South Africa.

Sommelier and wine consultant Beth von Benz suggested looking at the bigger picture when asparagus is combined with other ingredients. Sure enough, her suggestion of an unwooded petit Chablis with an asparagus pasta dish with morels was right on the mark. So was a red Chinon. A German Riesling Kabinett and German pinot blanc went well with several dishes, as did a Beaujolais nouveau, which you may have to wait until November to try. But that’s okay. There will be plenty of asparagus.

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