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.

Recipes by Catherine Walthers

Grilled asparagus and vegetable platter

It’s easy to increase this pretty dish to serve a crowd – just add more vegetables. For variations you could use fresh herbs like parsley or basil as a garnish, or try feta cheese instead of Parmesan.

Serves 4 to 6

• 1 bunch asparagus (about 1 pound)

• 2 small-to-medium yellow squash (about 3/4 pound)

• 2 small-to-medium zucchini (about 1 pound)

• 1 or 2 red bell peppers

• Balsamic marinade, recipe follows

• Parmesan for garnish

1. Preheat grill.

2. Trim bottom third off asparagus and place in a large glass baking dish. Trim the ends off the squash and zucchini. Cut each in half lengthwise, then cut each half again lengthwise. From each squash, you will have four long wedge-shaped pieces that will be very easy to grill. Add to the asparagus. Cut the ends of the pepper. Slit one side and open pepper up flat, trimming and removing the inside ribs and seeds as you go. Cut at an angle into strips and add to other vegetables.

3. Put aside 2 tablespoons balsamic marinade, and pour the rest over the vegetables while the grill is heating.

4. Grill the squash for 8 to 10 minutes, turning on all three sides as you go and adding additional salt to season. Grill the asparagus and red pepper for 4 to 6 minutes, turning each piece halfway through. As each batch of vegetables comes off the grill, brush with a bit of the reserved balsamic marinade.

5. Top with shavings of Parmesan cheese; you can do this by using a peeler and shaving the edges of a Parmesan wedge. Serve hot.

balsamic marinade

• 4 tablespoons olive oil

• 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

• 2 teaspoons maple syrup

• 1 clove garlic, finely minced

• Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a small bowl, whisk the oil, vinegar, maple syrup, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper.

Penne with asparagus and mushrooms

The eggs, imported Parmesan reggiano, and a bit of pasta water create a luscious, creamy sauce. Cut the asparagus on the diagonal to make the dish look prettier. Prep the asparagus and mushrooms in advance of cooking the pasta, so the timing of the dish works.

Serves 4

• 12 ounces penne pasta

• 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

• 1 pound asparagus, bottom 2 inches trimmed and discarded, cut in 1 1/2- to 2-inch pieces

• 2 cups sliced shiitake mushrooms (stems removed)

• 2 cloves garlic, finely minced

• 2 large eggs

• 3/4 cup Parmesan reggiano cheese (recommended for best flavor and texture)

• 1 teaspoon lemon zest

• 2 to 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

• 1/3 cup pasta water (reserve from the cooking pot when the pasta is nearly done)

• Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add salt and pasta, and cook until al dente, according to the package directions. (You will need 1/3 cup of the pasta water for the sauce.)

2. Heat the largest skillet you own on medium high. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and asparagus and cook for 4 minutes, stirring often to make sure all sides of the asparagus are cooked. Add a pinch or two of salt. The asparagus will be crisp tender. Place cooked asparagus into a bowl and set aside.

3. In the same skillet, add the remaining two tablespoons of oil and reduce the heat to medium-low. Add shiitake mushrooms, stir for a few seconds, and then add garlic. Sauté, mixing often, until mushrooms are cooked, 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and add to the asparagus. Keep the skillet handy, as you’ll be putting the pasta in it.

4. As the pasta cooks, whisk the eggs, Parmesan, lemon zest, and lemon juice together in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. When the pasta is nearly cooked, ladle out 1/3 cup pasta water and slowly whisk the hot water into the egg mixture.

5. Drain pasta and immediately place into the large skillet. Add the sauce to the hot pasta and mix well. Add the asparagus and mushrooms. The heat of the pasta should be enough to warm the asparagus and mushrooms, but you can put the skillet on low heat if necessary. Taste and add additional salt and pepper if needed. Serve hot.

Spring asparagus soup

When asparagus is cooked awhile, as in a soup, it can turn a duller color of green. The remedy used here to create a vibrant green soup is to add a bit of fresh spinach when blending. You can also garnish the soup with a bit of finely chopped dill.

Serves 6

• 2 bunches asparagus (about 2 pounds)

• 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil, divided

• 2 whole leeks, trimmed, cut in half lengthwise, rinsed, and sliced (white, light, and dark green parts)

• 1/2 cup white wine (optional)

• 5 cups chicken stock or water

• 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

• 1 medium potato, peeled and sliced very thinly

• 2 cups fresh spinach, stems removed

• Salt and white pepper, to taste

• 4 tablespoons crème fraiche or heavy cream

• 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, or more to taste

1. Rinse asparagus and remove about 1 inch off the bottom, and cut the rest into 1- or 1 1/2-inch pieces. In a thick-bottomed soup pot over medium-high, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter or oil and sauté asparagus, stirring often for about 8 minutes. After 5 minutes, pull out 6 asparagus tops for a garnish. Set asidesautéed asparagus in a bowl.

2. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter or oil to the soup pot, and sauté leeks for about 8 minutes. Add wine, if using, and cook until reduced by half. Add the chicken stock or water, cayenne, and potato, and bring to a boil. Turn down to simmer, add back the asparagus, and cover. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft.

3. Purée the soup in two batches in a blender (not a food processor) until very smooth, adding 1 cup of spinach to each batch. Blend thoroughly, at least a minute, so the soup is creamy. (Be careful to fill blender only 2/3 full and drape a kitchen towel over the top for safety, as hot liquids can cause pressure during blending.) Season with salt and white pepper. Keep tasting and adding salt until the soup tastes flavorful, not bland.

4. Stir in the crème fraiche or cream and the lime juice. Ladle into soup bowls and garnish each with a cooked asparagus tip.

Roasted salmon and asparagus with honey mustard sauce

The salmon and asparagus are roasted on the same sheet pan to make an easy weeknight meal or casual dinner with friends during asparagus season. Serve this with orzo dressed in a little butter and some of the leftover herbs, or boiled new potatoes.

Serves 4

• 4 (six-ounce) pieces of salmon fillet (about 1 1/2 pounds)

• 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

• Salt and pepper to taste

• 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped

• 1 tablespoon fresh dill, finely chopped (may substitute chives)

• 1 pound asparagus, ends trimmed

• Two lemon wedges

• Honey mustard sauce, recipe follows

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Lay a piece of parchment paper on a heavy-duty rimmed sheet pan. Place the salmon pieces at one end. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the olive oil on the pieces, and season with salt and pepper. Top each with the parsley and dill.

2. Mix the asparagus in a flat dish with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, and season with salt. Place at the other end of the sheet pan, so all pieces lie flat.

3. Roast for about 10 to 12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the salmon. Turn the asparagus halfway through. When the salmon is done, it should be lightly translucent.

4. When lifting the salmon from the baking sheet, see if you can slide your spatula gently between the fish and skin, and leave the skin behind. Squeeze a bit of fresh lemon juice over the salmon. Spoon some honey mustard sauce on top of the salmon and asparagus and around the edges of the plate.

honey mustard sauce

• 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

• 2 tablespoons water

• 1 tablespoon honey

• 1 tablespoon fresh dill, finely chopped

• Salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a small bowl, whisk all ingredients together.

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.