All About Asparagus

With Recipes For:

On a mid-September afternoon in 1994, 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.

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?

"That's the way I think about it," says Bill Telepan, executive chef of the JUdson Grill in Manhattan. 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 when Peruvian asparagus, now shipped in lighter corrugated plastic, exploded in volume on the US marketplace. Now Peru is the world’s second largest asparagus producer, after China and ahead of Mexico and the United States, most of it coming from July through February, according to Peter Warren, general manager of Americas Produce, one of the largest importers of Peruvian asparagus.

"We don't have enough airplanes to get it out of Peru," he says. "Asparagus is rapidly approaching the salmon category when it will be not only year round but plentiful and much cheaper." (Chile, Guatemala, Colombia, and Argentina also export asparagus to the United States, which imports about 40 percent of consumption.)

The reason for this explosion, says Warren, is that "Peru has rewritten the asparagus book." 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 dormancy is created by not watering the plants instead of by exposing them to 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. "People don't go to California to learn about asparagus, they go to Peru," Warren says.

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.

Two years ago, I tasted end-of-the-season Peruvian asparagus and early California asparagus, cooked separately and seasoned with salt, pepper and butter. 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, not surprising since it can cost twice as much as green asparagus. (Peruvian green asparagus has approached $4 a pound. California green asparagus can go as low as $1 a pound at its peak in March, April and May.) White asparagus can grow to the same size as green asparagus except that it is kept under earth, away from sunlight. As for taste, the Peruvian and California white asparagus I sampled were both fibrous with a woody, watery, and somewhat bitter taste reminiscent of Belgian endive but not of asparagus.

You'd think with all this asparagus that Americans would be gorging on it like tortilla chips. But per capita consumption is less than half of Germany's rate of 2 1/2 pounds a year.

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, now available nationwide. Asparagus salsa is in the works.
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. I love asparagus roasted in a cast iron skillet in a 500-degree oven with rosemary flavored olive oil. For an easy hors d'oeuvres, you can't beat chilled asparagus wrapped with prosciutto.

James 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 for 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.

If 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.

Though 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. 

Beth von Benz, sommelier at the JUdson Grill, suggests looking at the bigger picture when asparagus is combined with other ingredients. Sure enough, her suggestion of an unwooded petit Chablis with Telepan's 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.

Asparagus Preparation

To peel or not to peel? That is the question with asparagus. My answer is not. Peeling asparagus — actually the bottom 25 percent or so — is tedious and unnecessary. My method: Hold the top half of one spear in one hand and the bottom with the thumb and forefinger of the other hand. Bend each spear until it snaps. It will snap naturally where the toughest part meets the tender part. Save the bottoms if you like for a stock (made with the cooking water) or discard.

Sautéed Asparagus with Morels and Thyme

 Kosher salt
1 pound asparagus, trimmed (see preparation note above)
1-1/2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 ounces fresh morels, sliced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
Black pepper to taste

1) Bring an inch or two of water in a skillet to a boil with a teaspoon of salt. Have a large bowl of ice water standing by in the sink.

2) Add the asparagus to the boiling the water and cook 3 to 4 minutes or until barely tender but still quite firm. With a skimmer or tongs, remove the spears to the ice water. When the asparagus spears have cooled, drain and set aside until you're ready to finish the dish an hour to several hours later. Refrigerate if more than an hour.

3) Heat butter and oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat until butter stops foaming. Add morels, asparagus, thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Stir until the morels are wilted and the asparagus just heated through, about 3 or 4 minutes.

Serves 4.

Sam's Cooking Tip: One trick restaurants use to prepare green vegetables ahead is blanching, which works well with green beans, asparagus and broccoli. Vegetables are cooked about 90 percent of the way, then plunged into ice water to stop the cooking and preserve the color. Once drained, the vegetables can be refrigerated for later "finishing" by sautéing them in a wok or skillet or simply reheating in a microwave oven. If you're cooking lot of asparagus, do it in batches of about a pound or so at a time.

Asparagus and Soft-Shelled Crab Sandwiches

2 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise (preferably Hellman's or Best Foods)
2 teaspoons chopped capers
1 tablespoon minced scallion
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Healthy pinch of cayenne pepper
2 soft-shell crabs, cleaned
6 to 8 asparagus spears, blanched and chilled (see Sautéed Asparagus with Morels and Thyme)
1 tablespoon clarified butter
2 sesame seed hamburger rolls or other soft rolls

1) Combine mayonnaise, capers and scallions in a small bowl. Set aside.

2) Combine flour with salt, pepper and cayenne. Dredge crabs in flour and shake off excess. Heat clarified butter in a large, heavy skillet over moderate heat.

3) Add crabs and cook 3 minutes on one side. Add asparagus to the pan, turn the crabs over, and cook another 3 minutes, seasoning the asparagus with salt and pepper. Drain asparagus and crab briefly on paper towels.

4) Spread the mayonnaise on the rolls, top with crab and asparagus. Serves 2.

Sam's Cooking Tip: To clean the crabs, slice off the eyes and mouth (they're small but easily recognizable) with kitchen scissors. Lift up the two flaps with the pointy ends on either side of the top of the crab and scrape off the fibrous gills underneath. Flip the crab over and remove the apron flap on the bottom.

Roasted Asparagus with Rosemary Oil

1 pound asparagus
2 large sprigs of fresh rosemary
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Trim the asparagus as directed in Preparation above. Wash the spears and set aside.

2) Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Snap rosemary sprigs in half. Put in a micowaveable dish with oil and cook on half power for a minute. Then put oil, rosemary and asparagus in a cast iron or other ovenproof skillet. Rub or brush asparagus thoroughly with oil. Let marinate 30 minutes at room temperature.

3) Put the skillet in the oven and cook 10 minutes, shaking the skillet a few times to coat spears with oil and cook evenly. Serves 3 or 4.

Asparagus Vinaigrette

1 pound asparagus
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon dry vermouth or light vinegar such as champagne, rice wine or cider
2 scallions (the white and 2/3 of the green), minced
1/2 teaspoon Herbs de Provence
Freshly ground black pepper

1) Trim, blanch and chill asparagus as in Sautéed Asparagus with Morels and Thyme.

2) Meanwhile, combine remaining ingredients with salt to taste in a shallow dish. Add the asparagus and toss to coat. Cover and marinate 3 hours at room temperature or refrigerate up to 24 hours. Bring to room temperature before serving. Toss a few times during marination.

Serves 3.

Risotto with Asparagus and Clams

30 little neck clams, scrubbed
3 cups water mixed with 3 cups chicken stock or bottled clam juice
1 tablespoon butter
1/3 to 1/2 cup finely chopped onions
2 to 3 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
2 cups arborio rice
2/3 cup dry white wine
2 cups asparagus spears, trimmed of tough bottom ends and cut into 1 -inch sections (10 to 12 medium spears)
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

1) Put clams in a large covered skillet over medium-high heat, shaking a few times. Remove clams as soon as they open. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, remove clams from shells, halve (unless very small) and reserve any liquid. Strain clam liquid through cheesecloth and into a large saucepan with chicken stock and water. Bring to a boil andreduce to a simmer.

2) Put butter in a heavy bottom saucepan over medium-low heat. Add onion, garlic and hot pepper. Cover and sweat until soft, about 3 minutes. Add rice and stir to coat. Add wine, increase heat to medium and bring to a boil.

3) Begin adding stock, a cup or so at a time, stirring occasionally while risotto is at a simmer. After the second cup, add the asparagus.

4) When the last cup of stock has been added, stir in reserved clams, parsley, lemon rind and salt and pepper to taste. When risotto is tender, but still firm, remove from heat. (You may not need to use up all the liquid. Keep tasting to see when the risotto is just right.)

Serves 4 to 6 as a main course, 6 to 8 as an appetizer.

Sam's Cooking Tip: Though any dry white wine can be used in this dish, it's always a nice touch to use one that fits the ethnic make up of the dish and especially one you can drink when serving it. In this case, I'd recommend an Italian white such as a Gavi, Pinot Grigio or Verdicchio.

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