One of the delights of spring is the return of asparagus season. Here's how to make the most of it.
How To Buy
Choose firm, bright green asparagus stalks with plump, tightly closed tips. Fading color is a sign of deterioration. Check the stem ends to make sure they look freshly cut, not shriveled or dried out.
How To Store
Uncooked asparagus will stay fresh for three to four days in the refrigerator. The secret is to keep the vegetable cool and damp. Store spears upright in a container with the stems wading in an inch of water, then cover loosely with a plastic bag. Easier still: Wrap the ends in moist paper towels and drop the bundle into a plastic bag.
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How To Cook
Unlike carrots, asparagus tastes better cooked, and it takes only a few minutes. The goal: Preserve the bright color and delicate flavor. Peeling asparagus before cooking will help achieve this (see Peel & Trim, below). Broiling or roasting the spears intensifies their inherent sweetness. Steamed or boiled asparagus is great for salads.
If you boil, forget the fancy equipment. Just launch the spears in a skillet full of lightly salted boiling water. The pan should be large enough to fit the spears in one or two layers, so that they cook evenly and quickly. Don't cover the skillet, otherwise the asparagus will go from bright green to army drab. Start testing for doneness after two or three minutes by piercing the ends with a knife. They should be barely tender, with a slight crunch. Asparagus will continue to cook after you've removed it from the pan. If you like asparagus with snap, drop it into a sinkful of cold water to stop the cooking.
Thick vs. Thin
Thin spears, thick spears―both can be sweet and tender, as long as they're fresh. The diameter of an asparagus spear indicates when it was harvested. Thick spears are generally harvested at the beginning of the season―the stalks get thinner as the season wears on. Texture is related to how fast the spears grow. The longer they grow, the more fibrous they become. Peeling can take care of that, however.
The Other Colors
Green isn't the only shade asparagus comes in. The much rarer white asparagus has a milder flavor and a softer texture. Farmers cover the stalks with soil as they grow, which prevents sunlight from reaching the shoots. This retards the development of chlorophyll (which makes plants green), resulting in the delicate creamy color―and a plant that has all the nutrition of iceberg lettuce. Purple asparagus (like Viola and Purple Passion) is sometimes available at farmers' markets. It is slightly sweeter and more tender than green asparagus and turns dark green when cooked because the purple pigment is destroyed by heat.
How To Peel & Trim
Use a vegetable peeler to take off the outer layer. This will eliminate most of the stringiness and remove any sand hiding in the fronds on the stalk. Peeled asparagus cooks quickly (the stems and tips will be done at the same time) and remains greener during cooking. You can peel stalks up to a day before cooking and store them wrapped in damp paper towels in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator. Conventional asparagus wisdom says snapping the spear breaks away the tough, fibrous end. This works well when harvesting in the field, but in the kitchen it's a sorry waste of good food. Once a spear has been peeled, simply cut off the dry white part.
How To Use The Grill Basket
Grill baskets are especially helpful for delicate foods like asparagus, since they keep the food from falling through the grates and into the fire. Simply place a single layer of spears in the basket and close the lid. When they're lightly browned, flip the basket over. All the spears will cook evenly and at the same rate. Look for grill baskets at your local hardware store, or with the barbecue and grilling tools in a cookware department.