Celebrity chef John Ash shares how to buy, store, clean, cook asparagus

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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.

Various hues

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.

White: This is the most expensive of the three because it requires much more work to produce. Earth must be constantly heaped up over the spears as they grow, to prevent exposure to sunlight, which would develop their chlorophyll and turn them green. Fresh white asparagus is hard to find in America unless you are in a large, sophisticated urban market. In Europe, it’s widely available fresh during the spring and highly prized. It’s also readily available canned there and in America as well. Canned white asparagus is used mostly in composed salads. White asparagus has a flavor all of its own — it tends to be milder than the other two and often will have just a touch of pleasant bitterness.

Buy, care for asparagus

What to look for: Whether you prefer the thick or thin spears of whatever color, be certain they are fresh. The sugar in the plant quickly converts to starch after harvesting, causing a loss in flavor and development of a woody texture.

Select firm, straight, smooth, rich green stalks with tightly-closed tips. Open tips, ridges in the stems and a dull green color are an indication of old age. The stalks should not be limp or dry at the cut. Choose stalks of uniform thickness for more control in the cooking process.

How to store: With all types of asparagus, do not wash before storing and never soak it. Trim the ends of fresh asparagus and stand them upright in a jar with about an inch of water in the bottom. Cover with a plastic bag and store spears in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Size doesn’t tell you much: The conventional wisdom is that the thin, pencil-size asparagus are more tender than those that are fatter. The truth is that the diameter of the stalk isn’t necessarily a good guide to its tenderness. Actually, the fatter spears are usually more tender. Reason: No matter what its size, each spear has a set number of tough fibers that run its length. In a small spear they are crammed together and there is less juicy white flesh between them. With fatter spears, the fibers are further apart separated by more tender, sweet flesh.

How to prepare: Wash asparagus just before cooking to remove any bit of grit left from the sandy soil it is usually grown in. Asparagus does not usually need to be peeled unless you get a particularly stringy spear. This is despite the many recipes that call for this step. If it’s fresh, it should be nice and tender. To double check: After you cut off the woody end, cut a small piece and eat it. Make your decision about peeling then. The exception is if you are doing the shaved salad below or using fresh white asparagus — which should always be peeled, according to author Harold McGee and others.

If the white woody base is still there when you buy asparagus, then this must be removed. Either chop it off or snap the asparagus by holding the bottom and near the top with your hands — the idea is that it should snap right at the point where it starts getting tough. The drawback to this is that you’ll probably waste more of the tender spear than if you just cut the tough white base off with a knife. To be sure that you are into the tender part, cut off a little of the base and eat it to test.

How to cook asparagus

There are lots of ways to successfully cook asparagus. The key no matter which method you use is to make sure that you don’t overcook. The goal of “crisp-tender” should always be in your mind. Time will of course depend on the thickness of the spear.

Blanching: Drop the trimmed spears into boiling salted water and cook until just tender. If not eating right away, then plunge into cold water to stop the cooking and set the color. Old recipes sometimes called for using baking soda in the cooking water to help preserve the color and soften the vegetable. While the former might be nice the latter isn’t. Most of us like our asparagus with a firm texture. Also baking soda destroys acids like vitamin C.

Steaming: Takes a little longer than blanching but the rationale is that it retains more nutrients. There are asparagus steamers on the market in which you place the asparagus vertically with a little water in the bottom. The thicker bottoms get more heat than the tops and in theory this will evenly cook the whole spear. I use my Chinese bamboo steamer with good results.

Grilling: One of the simplest and best ways, to my taste, to cook asparagus is to give it a light coating of olive oil and grill it. Grilling brings out the sweetness and I prefer it to steaming or boiling, which seems to bring out more of the “vegetal” notes. I’m convinced, too, that keeping the asparagus away from water seems to minimize that interesting condition called “asparagus pee”. I won’t go any further but see if it works for you.

Roasting: Similar to grilling except in the oven. Place the oiled and seasoned spears in a loose single layer on a baking sheet and either cook in a hot oven (450 degrees or more) or cook under a preheated broiler until just beginning to brown. You’ll need to turn them a couple of times.

Stir frying: You’ll need to cut the asparagus stalks into shorter lengths and then stir fry. You can either blanch the asparagus before stir frying, which will cut down on time or you can just do it from raw. Up to you.

Microwaving: A great way of cooking asparagus which both preserves color and minimizes nutrient loss. Rinse, place in a microwave proof bowl, cover with plastic and cook till its crisp tender.

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This is the classic French recipe for asparagus that many remember. Cook the asparagus in whatever way you like but make sure it’s crisp-tender. Add Canadian bacon and an English muffin, and you’ve got a delicious Benedict.

Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce

Makes 4 servings

1½ pounds asparagus

½ pound (2 sticks) butter

3 egg yolks

1 tablespoon lemon juice or to taste

3 tablespoons or so warm water

— Salt and freshly ground white pepper

— Chopped chives and paprika, for garnish

Using a collapsible steamer, steam asparagus until just tender, about 5 minutes depending on thickness.

Meanwhile melt butter in a 1-quart sauce pan over medium heat. Remove from heat and skim off any foam.

Add egg yolks, lemon juice and 1 tablespoon warm water to a blender and blend for a couple of seconds. With motor running at medium speed, add half the melted butter in a slow steady stream. Add 1 tablespoon water to thin sauce a little and continue slowly adding remaining butter. Thin sauce if desired with additional warm water and season to your taste with salt and pepper.

Serve warm asparagus topped with a spoonful or two of sauce and garnished with chives and paprika.

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The sweet spot for frying anything is 350 to 375 degrees. Ideally you should have a deep-fry thermometer of some kind to regulate. If you don’t, you can use a small cube of fresh bread to test or, as my grandmother did, put the handle end of a wooden spoon into the hot oil and if it bubbles nicely you are good to go. It’s important here to peel the asparagus so that the coating will stick to it.

Asparagus Fries with Smoked Paprika Aioli

Makes 6 servings

3 cups or so vegetable oil for frying

1 pound or so big but tender asparagus spears, peeled, woody ends removed

¾ cup flour seasoned generously with salt and pepper

2 large eggs beaten with 2 tablespoons water

2 medium limes

1 cup panko bread crumbs

— Smoked paprika aioli (recipe follows)

Heat the oil in a small saucepan to 375 degrees.

Test the asparagus to make sure it’s not tough or stringy. If so, peel it first using a vegetable peeler. Cut asparagus into 2-inch lengths.

Place seasoned flour on a small plate. In a small bowl combine the egg mixture with the juice of one of the limes. Cut the other lime into 6 wedges. Place the panko on another small plate.

Dredge the asparagus first in the flour and shake off any excess. Then, dip into the egg mixture and finally into the panko to nicely coat. Fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove and drain briefly on paper towels. Serve immediately with the lime wedges and the smoked paprika aioli.

Smoked Paprika Aioli

Makes about 3/4 cup

4 large poached garlic cloves (see sidebar)

1 tablespoon or so olive oil

2/3 cup mayonnaise

2 teaspoons smoked paprika or to taste

— Drops of lemon juice to taste

— Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Add all ingredients to a blender and pulse till smooth. Store refrigerated for at least an hour to allow flavors to blend before using.

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You could use this same approach with artichokes or Brussels sprouts. Once dressed, the shaved asparagus shouldn’t marinate for more than 15 minutes or so because it loses it crisp texture. If your asparagus has a tough skin, then you’ll want to peel it completely before shaving. If not, then follow instructions below and just shave off and discard two sides of it.

Shaved Raw Asparagus Salad with Pecorino and Hazelnuts

Makes 6 to 8 servings as side salad

¾ pound fresh asparagus (preferably larger rather than smaller), woody ends discarded

— Honey lemon vinaigrette (recipe follows)

3 cups young arugula and/or upland cress (about 2 ounces)

½ cup peeled, toasted and chopped hazelnuts

2 ounces or so thinly shaved pecorino (use a vegetable peeler)

Cut off tips of asparagus and set aside in a large bowl. Lay asparagus flat on cutting board and shave one side of it with a vegetable peeler and discard this first shaving. Turn to other side and repeat. Now shave remaining spear thinly and place in the bowl. Dress generously with some of the vinaigrette and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes for flavors to marry and asparagus to soften just a little.

Add arugula and hazelnuts along with a little more dressing and toss with asparagus. Arrange attractively on plates and top with the shaved pecorino. Serve immediately.

Honey Lemon Vinaigrette

Makes 1 generous cup

2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot

6 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar

2 tablespoons fragrant honey

4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

4 tablespoons olive oil

— Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Whisk all ingredients together and season with salt and pepper. Store covered and refrigerated up to three days.

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One of the simplest and best ways to cook asparagus is to give it a light coating of olive oil and grill it. Add some good olives if desired. Lemon infused olive oil is available in Italian markets and good gourmet stores. Agrumato brand from Italy and “O” from California both make great citrus infused oils.

Grilled Asparagus with Lemon Olive Oil, Burrata and Prosciutto

Makes 4 servings

1 pound fresh asparagus, tough ends discarded

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

— Flaky sea salt such as Maldon’s

— Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons or so Italian or California lemon infused extra virgin olive oil

6 ounces fresh burrata cheese

4 thin slices prosciutto

2 tablespoons capers, drained, patted dry and fried till crisp in olive oil, if desired

— Lemon wedges

Brush the asparagus with the olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Over hot coals or a gas grill preheated to medium high, grill the asparagus till it takes on a bit of color. Roll and turn so that it’s marked on all sides but still green and crisp. Place on a plate and drizzle with lemon olive oil. Cut burrata into wedges and arrange attractively on the asparagus with the prosciutto. Scatter capers around. Serve lemon wedges on the side. Add more salt and pepper if desired.

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You’ll note there is no cream or milk in this variation of scalloped potatoes. It’s very simple to do and you could add some chopped fresh or sun-dried tomatoes and other herbs if you liked. Be sure to use a fragrant, fruity olive oil for best results.

Asparagus, Potato and Pecorino Gratin

Makes 8 to 10 servings as a side dish

2½ pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled

2 pounds young asparagus, woody ends discarded and cut into 1-inch lengths

3/4 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups coarse bread crumbs such as panko

1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons dried thyme

2½ cups finely grated Pecorino cheese (about 6 ounces)

— Salt and freshly ground pepper

1½ cups pitted and chopped black olives such as Cerignola or Oil Cured

Bring 6 to 8 quarts of salted water to a boil. Slice the potatoes into 1/4-inch thick rounds add to boiling water, cook for 2 minutes and then remove with a strainer and cool on a baking sheet. In the same boiling water, blanch asparagus for 2 minutes, drain, run under cold water to stop the cooking and set the color. Set aside.

Oil a 3 quart, 3-inch deep baking dish with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. In a separate bowl mix the bread crumbs with the parsley, thyme and the Pecorino. Spread 1/3 of the potatoes in a single layer in the bottom of the baking dish, season generously with salt and pepper and top with 1/3 of the bread crumb mixture. Spread half of the asparagus and olives over this along with a third of the remaining olive oil and top with another layer of the potatoes, duplicating the first layer. Top with the final layer of potatoes and the bread crumbs drizzled with remaining olive oil.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 60 minutes or until potatoes are tender and top is golden brown. Serve warm.

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This recipe uses a kind of couscous known as Israeli couscous or pearl pasta. This also makes a nice side dish for simply cooked meats, fish and poultry.

Couscous Risotto with Asparagus and Dry Jack Cheese

Makes 4 to 6 servings as a main course

½ cup chopped shallots or green onions (white part only)

2 tablespoons slivered garlic

3 tablespoons olive oil or butter

2 cups Israeli couscous

½ cup dry white wine

4 cups or so hot chicken or vegetable stock

¾ pound young asparagus, woody ends discarded, sliced diagonally about 1/4 inch long

½ cup freshly grated dry Jack or other hard grating cheese

1½ cups seeded and diced firm ripe tomatoes

2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (use a microplane)

1/3 cup chopped chives

— Salt and freshly ground black pepper

— Fried basil sprigs and drops of truffle oil (optional garnish)

Sauté the shallots and garlic in olive oil until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the couscous and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes longer or until lightly toasted. Add the wine and ½ cup of the stock and stir occasionally until liquid is nearly absorbed. Add remaining stock in one cup increments and continue to cook and stir until stock is nearly absorbed. Continue in this manner until the couscous is barely tender (about 10 minutes total). Stir in the asparagus with the final addition of stock and cook for a minute or two. Couscous should be tender but still have a little texture.

To finish and serve: Stir in the cheese, tomatoes, zest and chives and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately in warm bowls topped with the basil sprigs and the truffle oil for a decadent twist!

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You could also use fresh pasta for this in place of the wontons. It will take a little longer to cook of course.

Asparagus Ravioli with Brown Butter Sauce

Makes 4 to 6 servings (20 raviolis)

1/2 pound tender young asparagus, woody ends discarded, tips reserved

— Sea salt

2 tablespoons crème fraiche

1/3 cup farmer or whole milk ricotta cheese

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon anchovy paste

— Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

— Big pinch cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

36 wonton wrappers

For the sauce:

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds or pine nuts, chopped

— Freshly ground black pepper

— Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

— Freshly grated lemon zest

— Parsley sprigs for garnish, preferably fried

For the ravioli: Bring 4 cups salted water to a boil in a saucepan. Add asparagus tips and cook till tender but still bright green, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and immediately shock in ice water, then drain again and set aside. Chop stalks into ½-inch lengths and cook as above. Dry stalks on a paper towels and add to a food processor.

Add crème fraiche and cheeses and remaining ingredients except wontons and pulse 4 or 5 times until just combined. Taste and adjust seasoning. Place a rounded teaspoon of filling on half of the wrappers. Using a pastry brush, paint water around edge of each square. Top each with one of the reserved wrappers and press edges firmly to seal. If you don’t cook ravioli right away, cover with a damp cloth.

Bring salted water to a rolling boil in a large pot. Add ravioli and bring to a boil. As soon as ravioli rise to the top, about 1 minute, remove with a slotted spoon to warmed plates.

While waiting for water to boil, make the sauce. Melt butter in a skillet over moderate heat and add nuts, shaking pan. Cook until butter turns a light brown color. Add reserved asparagus tips and drizzle over ravioli. Top with a grinding or two of pepper, some freshly grated Parmesan and a little lemon zest. Garnish with parsley sprigs.

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Delicious as a side dish, you can also stir in cooked shrimp or chicken to turn it into a main dish. Mirin, a sweetened Japanese rice wine, is available in Asian markets and many supermarkets.

Stir-fry Asparagus and Snow Peas

Makes 4 servings

1 tablespoon peanut or other vegetable oil

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1 pound slender asparagus, trimmed and cut diagonally into 2-inch lengths

2 cups snow peas strings removed

1½ tablespoons sesame seeds

3 tablespoons mirin

1½ tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon soy sauce

3 tablespoons chicken or vegetable stock

½ teaspoon sugar or to taste

— Salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat the oils in a large wok or nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Swirl pan to coat with oil. Add asparagus and cook until stalks turn a bright green, about 2 minutes.

Add the snow peas and sesame seeds and stir fry until the vegetables are still bright green and crisp tender, another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove vegetables to a bowl with a slotted spoon and keep warm.

Add the mirin to the skillet and reduce over high heat by half, about 1 minute. Stir in the lemon juice, soy sauce, stock and sugar and cook until slightly reduced, about 3 minutes. Return vegetables to the pan and toss to coat with the sauce. Season to your taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of the KSRO “Good Food Hour” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website, chefjohnash.com.

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