Native to Southern Europe, asparagus has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years. Known to the ancient Greeks and Romans for its medicinal and culinary qualities, asparagus was prized by King Louis the XIV of France, who built special greenhouses so the spears could be available year-round.
Since then, asparagus has been grown and appreciated in all parts of the globe, from California and New England to Germany and China, one of the world’s largest producers. Different cultures have dried, frozen and even candied the spears, but chefs agree the eye-catching, value-added vegetable is best enjoyed fresh.
Aptly nicknamed “King of Vegetables,” asparagus is a member of the lily family whose spears grow from a crown planted underneath a foot of sandy, loamy soil. In spring and early summer, the crown sends up spears for 6-7 weeks.
The earliest, most tender stalks are bright green with purple-tinged tips. Warmer weather causes the spears to grow faster, often requiring daily harvests. Under ideal conditions, spears can grow 10 in. in 24 hours, and usually are harvested at 8-10 in. long by hand, making it a sometimes costly vegetable.
Europeans—and now many upscale American chefs—prefer white asparagus, which is grown under a mound of loose earth to prevent sunlight from striking the plant, producing chlorophyll and turning it green. White spears are thick, with a milder flavor and smoother exterior than the green variety.
Debate rages about whether thin or thick spears are more tender, or whether there is any difference at all, but sources agree that early spring asparagus is infallible. These tender shoots are best served as simply as possible (e.g. with butter, olive oil, lemon or herbs) to best showcase their clean, buttery flavor.
Otherwise, asparagus lends itself to numerous applications, but requires a delicate hand when cooking. It is easy to overcook the tender spears, rendering them limp, colorless and bland. Blanching, steaming or grilling are the preferable methods that produce a rich-green color and tender-crisp texture.
Depending on size, trimmed spears need not be boiled or steamed longer than 2-5 min.; when the asparagus turns bright green, remove it from the heat. Blanched spears can then be finished on a grill or flavored with a compound butter, herbs, classic sauces such as hollandaise or used in a stir fry for side dishes and entrees. When lined up in a “raft” or stacked and layered, asparagus makes an elegant, colorful and eye-catching bed for center-of-the-plate proteins, such as fish, beef, chicken or pork. When cooked and pureed, it also lends color, flavor and texture to soups, sauces and decorative drizzles.
While canned and frozen asparagus is available, fresh product has superior flavor and texture, adding value to any menu item. Hothouse asparagus is available in some regions from greenhouses year-round, while typically the harvest season lasts from February through June. Fresh asparagus can be frozen tightly sealed in plastic for up to six months. However, do not thaw frozen asparagus before cooking.