Top: Freshly cut asparagus from Baldor Food. Bottom: Three colors of asparagus from Australian Asparagus Growers.
Asparagus is our favorite harbinger of spring, along with big artichokes, fava beans, green garlic, morels, nettles, ramps and spring peas (a.k.a. English or garden peas).
Once upon a time—in your mother’s, grandmother’s or great-gran’s generation, depending on your age—people who preferred fresh produce had to get their fill during the growing season. Some growing seasons were quite brief.
Imported produce had yet to emerge in the off season, to meet the demands of people who wanted asparagus—or peaches or any other fruit or vegetable—year-round. When asparagus or peaches were out of season, you could buy them canned or frozen.
Now asparagus is available year-round, imported from the Southern Hemisphere during the Northern Hemisphere’s off season. That means carbon miles, plus waning freshness as the they travel a long distance.
In the U.S., spring is the best season for fresh, affordable asparagus. April through late June is prime asparagus season, so get your fill while you can.
In the olden days, spring asparagus were served as a side or a first course: buttered spears with a wedge of lemon and/or lemon mayonnaise. They were pickled and served with cocktails, turned into soup and, for people of Italian heritage, added to pasta and risotto.
While most of the asparagus grown are green (some with green tips, some with purple tips), you can find purple and white in specialty produce stores and farmers markets.
Here are the differences among green, purple and white asparagus varieties. We’ve even seen pale pink asparagus, possibly a mutation of the purple.
WAYS TO ENJOY ASPARAGUS
Asparagus blends well with most dishes.
Breakfast: In an omelet, frittata, scrambled eggs, with poached eggs or added to Eggs Benedict, with grits.
Appetizers: Asparagus crostini with pancetta, bruschetta with hummus, asparagus and prosciutto wraps, a snacking platter of hummus or other spreads and dips, charcuterie, cheese, gherkins and/or olives with steamed or pickled asparagus, crackers or breads.
Lunch: Added to a green salad, a conventional sandwich or a wrap; in a luncheon salad topped with grilled sliced beef, chicken, lamb, salmon, scallops or shrimp.
First Courses: Asparagus salad with red grapefruit, in any green salad, plain or with added bacon or pancetta; asparagus soup.
Mains: Any pasta dish, such as linguine with asparagus and Parma ham; any grilled or roasted meat, poultry or fish/seafood (check out these Greek-style lamb chops with feta, kalamata olives, mint and red onion); risotto or other rice/grain dishes; grilled salmon with asparagus and pineapple salsa; scallops with asparagus and morels.
Sides: Grilled asparagus (recipe (here’s one with mushrooms and shaved Parmesan), grilled rack of asparagus, sweet and spicy asparagus; stir-fried; pickled asparagus.
Diet: Steamed asparagus with balsamic vinaigrette, hummus or yogurt-Dijon dip; on a crudités platter.
THE HISTORY OF ASPARAGUS
The asparagus plant, Asparagus officinalis, is a member of the lily family, Asparagaceae, which also includes agave, and flowering plants such as lily of the valley and star of Bethlehem. There are more than 300 species of asparagus, most of which are grown as ornamental plants.
Asparagus originated in the eastern Mediterranean region, but today is grown worldwide. It was first cultivated more than 2,000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans prized asparagus for its unique flavor, texture and alleged medicinal qualities.
The vegetable gained popularity in France and England in the 16th Century; King Louis XIV of France enjoyed this delicacy so much that he had special greenhouses built to supply it year-round. Early colonists brought it to America.
Asparagus is a perennial plant raised in furrowed fields. It takes about three years before the plants produce asparagus. The delicate plant needs a temperate climate and requires much hand labor in all phases of cultivation. The spears are cut by hand—backbreaking work—when they reach about 9 inches in length.
Asparagus is nutritious: a good source of calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6 and zinc; and a very good source of copper, dietary fiber, folate, iron, manganese, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, protein, riboflavin, selenium, thiamin, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E (alpha tocopherol) and vitamin K, plus the antioxidant flavonoid rutin.
It has no fat or cholesterol and is very low in sodium. Asparagus is very low in calories (27 per cup) and contains no fat or cholesterol.
There are three varieties of asparagus—green, purple and white.
Green asparagus, the most common, has a green stalk and a purple tip.
White asparagus, popular in Germany, was first created in Argenteuil, France as a delicacy. It is green asparagus grown in the dark but with exposure to ultraviolet light (alternately, earth is piled on top of the stalks so that they grow “underground”), and in our opinion has more of a visual interest than flavor.
Purple or violet asparagus has higher sugar and lower fiber levels, although the numbers are not significant. It was originally developed in Tuscany and sold as Violetto d’Albenga, after the valley where it was grown.
Top: Asparagus and scrambled eggs for breakfast, from the California Avocado Commission. Bottom: A first course or light lunch of asparagus, prosciutto, burrata and crostini at Barbuto | NYC.
While white and purple asparagus are creations of modern growing techniques, green asparagus has been enjoyed since ancient times. There is a recipe for it in oldest surviving book of recipes, De Re Coquinaria, Book III, written by Marcus Gavius Apicius in the third century C.E.