Asparagus tastes slightly bitter, astringent, fresh, clean and sweet. As soon as you cut asparagus, the taste begins to change, so the fresher the asparagus, the better, with cut-moments-before-cooking asparagus by far the best.
There are green, white, and purple versions, however the white and purple versions are simply the green version deprived of sunlight. The spears are meaty, succulent and thick, with the green variety more bitter than the white and purple.
White asparagus is more expensive, since it takes more effort to grow, with the stalks blocked from sunlight their whole lives with dirt and black plastic. Raw white asparagus is more brittle than its green cousin, with the skin more fibrous the longer it has been picked. White asparagus, therefore, is almost always peeled.
White asparagus must be eaten fresh so as you understand its appeal. If the spears weren’t fresh from the field, then at the time they were harvested, they must be plunged into ice-cold water and then kept at just above freezing temperature. This is essential to avoid a cardboard-like flavour, and suitable and recommended for green asparagus too.
Fat white spears are sweeter, juicier, and hold their good qualities for longer than thin spears.
The flavour isn’t necessarily anything to write home about, with popular (but still quite rare) varieties including Purple Passion (USA), from Italian Violetto di Albenga variety. It is cut while still underground, with a very purple top and the rest being white. This asparagus is the most tender, sweet, and creamy.
Preparing and cooking asparagus
Cook asparagus the day you buy or pick it, but while the spears await your dish, wrap them in plastic to maintain their moisture content, and keep them refrigerated.
Asparagus is better cooked. To prepare asparagus for cooking, break the stalks where the tough and tender ends meet – it will break easily at this point. Throw away the tough bottom stalks. Asparagus is better peeled, since the skins are tough and stringy, and the stronger, more bitter flavours reside in the skin. Peeling also removes grit, and allows more even cooking of the tips and the stalks.
Boiling is best, steaming is slower, grilling is nasty.
How to boil asparagus: Sequence the drop into the boiling water by fatness of the stalk, so they all end up cooked the same amount – you don’t want overcooked stalks. Use plenty of salted, vigorously boiling water. Add the stalks, cover until the water returns to the boil, then uncover the pot so you can watch.
Stalks are better a tiny bit overcooked than undercooked. Thin spears will be cooked in two or three minutes, and the fattest stalks (freshly picked) won’t take more than four or five minutes. There are many factors including water pH, salt, stove temperature, and how much water there is, that impact on the cooking time.
Drain spears, wrap in a towel to absorb the water, and keep them hot – serve in the towel. If you want to eat them cool, dunk into ice cold water to stop the cooking process, but be careful – the extra water washes away flavour.
- Scrambled eggs, omelette, frittata – cut stalks into one-eighth or one-quarter diagonal slices, leaving the tips whole, cooked gently in butter, stirring until tender
- Boil spears upright in a tall asparagus pot with the removable metal basket, so the tips peek out of the water
- Put melted butter, lemon wedges and salt and pepper on the table, so each person can make a small pool of that mixture on their own plate to dip the spears. Make sure the plates are hot (or use olive oil instead), and avoid over-lemoning.
Complements to asparagus
- Butter (hollandaise, maltaise or bearnaise sauce)
- Olive oil (sweet and fruity is best)
- Vinaigrette (sherry vinegar)
- Raw shallots (finely chopped, freshly served)
- Eggs (hard-boiled and dipped, or sliced, finely chopped, pushed through a strainer; scrambled;
- Mayonnaise with extra lemon juice or herbs (chervil, chives, parsley, tarragon)
Wine that goes well with asparagus
Asparagus does not go well with red wine at all, but some white wines are complementary. If being served with butter, a clean, floral white with acidity is best, so long as the wine is only just sweeter than the asparagus – if not, the wine will be tart and the good flavours will be lost.
The best – according to sources – is Condrieu, from Viognier grapes in the northern Rhone Valley. A young Condrieu is best.
- Sauvignon Blanc is often recommended for asparagus, however there is much opposition to this, with opponents saying it is too dry for any green asparagus.
- The next most recommended wine is a Bordeaux blend with Semillon.
- Not-quite-dry Loire Valley Chenin Blanc
- Fully dry Chenin
- Cru Chablis
- Riesling (low sugar)
- Alsace Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris
- Gruner Veltliner (Austria)
- Dry or nearly dry Muscat
Tips should be smooth and tight, not opening, with no part appearing dry. Check the bases for a clean cut, but keep in mind they may have been stored in water and recuts are common. Only buy asparagus from a chiller, or arrive to farmers’ markets early. Don’t bother with white asparagus unless you know it has been properly cared for (always chilled).
Fat stalks keep better.
Harvesting and storing home-grown asparagus
Harvest your spears right before cooking to preserve their freshness and flavour. You can cut about eight or ten inches using a knife, leaving an inch or two behind. You can also snap them off with your fingers a bit higher.
The asparagus season is six to eight weeks, and don’t keep harvesting after summer heat arrives, because these spears will grow into fronds, which then strengthen next year’s crop.
The spears push through the dirt at lightning speed, sometimes more than half a foot in one day. Sandy soils are best. Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) grows wild across Europe and in northwest Africa, with some other wild asparagus found in the Americas and as far as Iran. Some wild asparagus differs in species, and can be more bitter or strong-flavoured. Wild asparagus shoots are known to be delicious.