In Season: How to cook tender asparagus
Fresh organic asparagus begins to arrive in our markets in earnest in late February, as the returning sun coaxes the spears from the ground. Most of the earliest fresh crop comes from the warmer parts of the Bay Area or farther south in the Central Coast or Southern California, but our asparagus beds here in the North Bay are waking up, too.
Some spears will be thin as pencils, some stalks as thick as your thumb. Since what we want is sweet, succulent, tender spears, it’s important to know whether thick or thin spears are the tenderest.
Scientists at the Michigan Agricultural Research Station loaded a shear press, which measures toughness, with asparagus.
They found that spear toughness increases with decreasing diameter and with increasing distance from the spear tip. In other words, the thicker the spear, the tenderer it is.
Green to purple spears are the most flavorful. Green asparagus is a prime source of folic acid — the vitamin that pregnant women should take to insure proper nervous system development in their babies.
Just a half cup of it provides one third of the recommended daily amount of this nutrient.
Conventional farms may spray both pesticides and fungicides, so if you want to avoid toxic agricultural chemicals, look for certified organic spears.
Perhaps the best way to enjoy spring asparagus is to find patches of it growing wild.
If you forage wild asparagus, be aware that asparagus can take up heavy metals when grown on or near waste disposal sites.
Many people think that the only way to cook asparagus is to boil it and serve it steaming hot to the table. But that only begins to unearth the riches of this vegetable. Roasting does wonders for the flavor.
Prepare asparagus spears in the usual way by grasping the cut end in one hand and a spot a few inches from the tip in the other.
Bend each spear until it snaps. That separates the tough part of the spear from the tender part. The tough ends can go into the soup pot, but the tip ends go into a skillet or baking dish.
Drizzle them with olive oil, grind some sea salt between the thumb and forefinger over them, toss the spears with a spatula until they’re coated with oil, and pop the skillet into a 500-degree oven for five minutes.
At the end of five minutes, give the skillet a shake and turn the spears over with a spatula, then close the door for five more minutes.
As they come out of the oven, squish the juice of half of a lime over them, and immediately serve them as a side dish.
Roasting does for asparagus what it does for beets — intensifies the flavor and gives it a bit of caramelized richness. Use thick spears for this method, as thin spears can toughen up in the hot oven.
Steaming is a fine way to cook asparagus without boiling all the nutrients out of them.
When making risotto, steam asparagus tips to add along with lime juice, steamed shrimp and fresh white corn kernels as the risotto nears completion.
If you must boil them, do it over medium to simmering heat in a skillet with a half-inch of acidulated, salted water, and cover the skillet.