Celebrity chef John Ash shares how to buy, store, clean, cook asparagus
I have fond memories of wild asparagus growing up on my grandparents’ ranch in Colorado. The ranch was located at about 8,000 feet, and winters were harsh at that altitude. Seeing wild asparagus pop up, usually in early to mid-April, was a sure sign that the weather was finally going to warm up and summer was on the horizon.
My grandmother and I would pick the wild asparagus and eat much of it raw right on the spot. If you’ve never eaten just picked asparagus, it has a delicious sweet/green flavor. Raw is still one my favorite ways of eating wild asparagus, but the fresh cultivated that we get in the market is quite delicious, too. Just make sure it’s as close to harvest as possible.
There are all kinds of ways to prepare asparagus beyond the usual steaming or blanching the spears whole. The recipes following have their genesis in things my grandmother used to do, so this is really an homage to her.
Asparagus has an interesting history. It grew wild along the Nile. It was a delicacy to the Greeks, who introduced it to the Romans. The Romans fell in love with it and sent fleets around the Mediterranean to collect it. They successfully domesticated it and were able to cultivate it wherever they settled — France, Britain and Germany. It was brought to America by colonists where some escaped from the garden and spread in the wild.
If ever there was a harbinger of spring, it’s asparagus. As the days grow longer and the soil warms, asparagus suddenly springs into life, sending up shoots that can grow 6 inches or more a day. At its peak, asparagus can grow almost faster than it can be harvested. This vitality has, over the ages, put it high on the list of foods which have special powers to increase potency and sexual vigor.
Whether this is true or not, asparagus leads nearly all produce in the wide array of nutrients it supplies in significant amounts. A leading supplier of folic acid, which is essential for blood cell formation, growth, and prevention of liver disease, a 5-ounce serving provides nearly 60 percent of the recommended daily allowance. With less than 20 calories per 5-ounce serving, asparagus is also a good source for thiamine and vitamins C and B6.
A member of the lily family (along with onions, garlic and shallots), the plants take three years of growing before they begin to produce marketable shoots. The plant is perennial and will continue to produce for up to 20 years.
Though there are many species of asparagus, we eat just one, “asparagus officinalis.” The basic difference in what we see in the market is color.
Green: This is what most of us buy. It comes thick or thin and now is available much of the year in supermarkets since it is grown widely around the world and shipped to us. It’s nice that it’s more available, but time from harvest affects both its flavor and texture. Asparagus purists sound the same mantra as those who love corn: For best flavor get it from the “plot to the pot” (or grill or oven) as quickly after harvest as you can.
Purple: Purple asparagus originated from the region around Albenga, Italy. This “cultivar” is known as Violetto di Albenga and you’ll see it in specialty food markets primarily. It’s almost always more expensive than green since purple hybrids produce fewer stalks per plant. Many say that purple is sweeter and more tender than green so it’s great used raw in salads. Unfortunately, its beautiful purple color fades to green when it is cooked, unless just very briefly stir fried.