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5.1.11

The Age of Asparagus

Island-grown spring shoots are a culinary delight this time of year.

Whether to buy thick or thin asparagus is a common question. Some might assume thinner spears are younger and therefore more tender. The diameter, however, has more to do with the age of the plant itself and the particular asparagus variety.

A perennial garden plant, asparagus grows from an under-ground crown, which produces numerous asparagus stalks for four to six weeks each year for up to fifteen, even twenty, years. At first the crowns tend to produce thinner shoots, and as the crowns age, slightly thicker ones. A thinner stalk doesn’t mature into a thicker stalk during a single growing season.

“We get fat asparagus and we think it’s better than skinny asparagus,” notes Jim Athearn of Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown. Jim says skinny stalks can also be a sign of a weak root system. “The fat ones are just as tender and tasty.”

The perennial taste-testers at Cook’s Illustrated describe thin and thick spears as equally sweet, nutty, and grassy, but have found thicker spears have a slightly better, more tender texture. The reason is that the fiber is somewhat more concentrated in thinner spears.

Apart from thick versus thin, many residents think Island-grown asparagus trumps its commercial counterparts for taste, and there’s actually some science behind this theory.

“I really look forward to that Morning Glory asparagus; I think it’s much better,” says Susie Middleton of West Tisbury, author of the cookbook Fast, Fresh & Green. “The texture is far superior. A lot of asparagus is shipped from South America – many, many miles away.”

Like corn, asparagus begins to lose its sugar content within hours of being picked. Sugar in corn turns into starch. In asparagus, that sugar is converted into tough, indigestible fibers. So it’s best if you can eat asparagus the day it’s picked.

People commonly bend the spears to snap off the inedible woody ends, which can be about a third of the asparagus. You can also snap a few, then cut the others to the same length (taking off about two inches) so all the spears look uniform.

Another approach is to peel the bottom end of the asparagus stalk, as is common in some French restaurants. Hara Dretaki, a private chef who lives in Vineyard Haven, says she uses an inexpensive asparagus peeler purchased from LeRoux at Home in Vineyard Haven. A Y-shaped vegetable peeler also works well. “I stopped bending it,” Hara says. “You waste too much. I just take one inch off and I peel the rest.”

Many people love asparagus prepared simply as a side dish with a little olive oil, butter, or hollandaise sauce, but it’s also great in risottos, warm salads, stir-fries, and pasta dishes. Asparagus shares a great flavor affinity with mushrooms, eggs, and cheeses like Parmesan, pecorino, goat cheese, and fontina. So we often find it nestled in quiches, omelets, and scrambled eggs and alongside other classic breakfast dishes such as eggs Benedict.

Since asparagus is 90 to 93 percent water, it holds up very well to the high heat of both grilling and oven roasting – which have both taken their rightful place alongside more traditional boiling or steaming methods. Whichever cooking method you choose, asparagus makes one of the quickest and easiest side dishes to prepare.

Since grilling season starts around the same time as asparagus season, this is a great method to start with. The natural flavor of asparagus is highlighted by that hint of smokiness. Roasting also brings out a deeper flavor.

“Most people like them grilled, but I love them roasted. I love the flavor,” Hara says. “With roasting, all of their inherent taste comes to the surface, so it’s more intense.”

An alternative to serving long spears is to cut them into pieces one-and-a-half- to two-inches long. “I love the way asparagus looks when you cut them on a really sharp angle,” says Susie, whose follow-up cookbook, Fast & Green for Dinner, is due out next spring. “Then I would either sauté them or stir-fry them on pretty high heat in a combination of butter and olive oil, or just olive oil, until they get lightly browned, five to seven minutes. It’s really quick and very pretty, an instant side dish.”

Asparagus cooked this way is good accented with some crispy pancetta or prosciutto and a little Parmesan. The quick-sauté method is also great when you want to cook asparagus for a salad or pasta salad; it combines well with artichokes, olives, fava beans, potatoes, and tomatoes.

Susie says she also likes “an Asian treatment for asparagus: garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and sesame oil, and garnished maybe with some sesame seeds.”

Specific fresh herbs that work well with asparagus include basil, parsley, chervil, chives, dill, saffron, sage, and thyme. “Tarragon is nice,” says Susie, “especially if you are making [asparagus] soup with a little lemon and crème fraiche.”

In terms of nutrition, asparagus contains vitamins C, A, and B, along with good amounts of calcium, iron, potassium, folate, and dietary fiber. Asparagus is high in glutathione, an antioxidant said to help defend the body against viruses and certain types of cancer and boost immune cells. It also contains a harmless, sulphur-like compound called asparagusic acid, which ends up creating a distinctive smell in a person’s urine. Food and science writer Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, says this happens to everyone. “It is the ability to detect its odor that varies from person to person,” he writes. But let’s not dwell on that here – springtime asparagus is just so tasty.

“You know, when you get your first asparagus, or your first acorn squash, or your first really good tomato of the season, those are the moments that define the cook’s year,” says celebrity chef Mario Batali. “I get more excited by that than anything else.”

We couldn’t agree more.

The following recipes by Catherine Walthers were originally published along with this article:

Grilled Asparagus and Vegetable Platter

Penne with Asparagus and Mushrooms

Spring Asparagus Soup

Roasted Salmon and Asparagus with Honey Mustard Sauce

Tips for grilling and roasting asparagus

Place cleaned and trimmed asparagus on a sheet pan or in a flat dish, drizzle with olive oil (and roll around to coat well), and season with salt. Grill for 3 to 6 minutes, depending on the spear size and your taste, turning halfway through. Oven roasting works in a similar manner to grilling; choose a high oven heat (450 degrees) and roast for 10 to 12 minutes.

You can serve the asparagus hot off the grill or out of the oven, enhanced with a little fresh black pepper, a touch of balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, or shaved Parmesan cheese. Some enjoy a drizzle of butter and lightly sautéed garlic. Others marinate asparagus in an herb or balsamic dressing before grilling, saving a bit to brush on the spears as they come off the grill.