Asparagus is a green vegetable that's easily recognizable for its long, pointy spears, which are commonly grilled, steamed, or roasted. It's known as a springtime vegetable and is primarily grown commercially in California, Michigan, and Washington state. Due to imports from China, Peru, and Germany, you can eat it year-round. Its seasonality also makes asparagus more expensive than other vegetables, and the flavor will vary based on where it's grown. Whether simply steamed, grilled, roasted, or incorporated into a recipe, asparagus brings the taste of green freshness to the table.
What Is Asparagus?
Garden asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is a herbaceous perennial plant that is a member of the lily family. The slender spears with their pointed, scaled tips that are eaten are actually the young shoots of the plant. If left to grow, these become a giant, feathery fernlike plant that dies back in the fall.
Asparagus plants grow throughout the world. The biggest producers are China, Peru, Germany, and the U.S. They thrive in temperate climates where the ground freezes. The spring thaw and warming temperatures prompt the spears to emerge from the ground. These are harvested once they reach 6-8 inches tall and the thickest spears are a half-inch thick. They start out thin, get thicker as the season progresses, then taper off again; harvest stops when the spears grow only to the thickness of a pencil.
Growing asparagus does require patience and space. Several square feet are needed per plant, and it can take 3-4 years to produce edible spears once the seeds are planted. This lengthy wait and the short season has given asparagus an exalted status as a luxury vegetable, which accounts for its occasional higher cost at the market. However, it's one of the easiest to prepare and cook.
How to Cook With Asparagus
Asparagus can be cooked many ways—roasted, grilled, steamed, boiled, pan-roasted, fried—and how to prepare it depends as much on your taste as the asparagus. Generally speaking, thinner spears are better for roasting, grilling, stir-frying, tossing with pasta, and eating raw in salads. Thicker asparagus is traditionally left whole so its tender, meaty texture can be appreciated. Try it steamed with butter or hollandaise sauce, or blanched and chilled with a vinaigrette, herbs, or other dressing. Since it tends to be the most tender and has the freshest flavor, try the first asparagus of the season lightly steamed with a squirt of lemon. It's a true taste of spring.
Whether thin or fat, you will need to wash and trim the asparagus before cooking. The fastest and easiest way is to hold the ends and bend the spear until it breaks somewhere in the middle; everything from the middle up will be tender enough to eat easily. For less waste and a more elegant presentation of fatter spears, try peeling asparagus.
What Does It Taste Like?
The taste of asparagus will vary with the season and variety. Generally, it's an earthy flavor, similar to broccoli, and almost like an intensely flavored green bean. White and purple varieties are milder, and any type of asparagus will pick up flavor from the food it's cooked with.
Often, asparagus is cooked and served on its own as a side dish. It is also delicious when added to pasta, salads, soups, and stir-fries. The simpler the recipe, the better it will show off this vegetable.
Where to Buy Asparagus
Asparagus is harvested from March through June, depending on the region. International cultivation makes it available year-round, though some people find that imports tend to be bland. Early in the season, the spears may be as thin as pencils; toward the end of the season fatter, meatier spears become available. Thickness in no way indicates tenderness, which is related to how the plant is grown and how soon it is eaten after harvest rather than spear size. Poorly or long-stored thin asparagus can be tough and flavorless; fresh, fat spears can be remarkably sweet and tender.
Buy asparagus as soon as possible after it is harvested. Farmers' markets and stores that buy from local growers are your best bets for extra-tender specimens. In some places, especially along roadsides, asparagus grows wild and is a popular springtime find for foragers. It's also easy to grow in home gardens, though you will have to wait three years for the first harvest.
Look for smooth skin, compact heads, and freshly cut ends. It should be as bright green (or purple or white for those varieties) as possible to increase your chances of biting into tender spears.
Asparagus is sold in bundles by the pound. One pound of asparagus is usually 12-15 spears. This will make 2-4 servings and yields about 3 cups of cut asparagus. The price will vary with the season as well. It's generally not the cheapest vegetable in the market.
Some people recommend storing asparagus as you would flowers, in a vase of water. Others wrap the ends in damp paper towels, place the bundle in a plastic bag, and stand them upright in the refrigerator. Storing them in a loosely wrapped plastic bag in the crisper works fine, too. The most important consideration is that the sooner you eat it, the better the flavor.
Asparagus can be blanched and then frozen. For best results, eat it within a year. Canning asparagus is another option, though the spears will be mushy. Pickled asparagus spears do make for an interesting snack.
Nutrition and Benefits
Asparagus is a nutritional wonder. It's an excellent source of fiber, cholesterol free, and low in calories and fat. Among the micronutrients found in the vegetable, it's highest in vitamin K and vitamin B9 (folate). You'll also get a good portion of your daily recommended vitamins A, C, and E, as well as phosphorus, potassium, and protein from a single serving.
There are many additional benefits to eating asparagus. It can aid in lowering blood pressure, assist digestion, and aid in eye and hair health. Add to that the potential anti-aging properties and its promotion as an aphrodisiac, and there's little reason to avoid eating this vegetable. However, you will notice that eating asparagus makes your urine smell rather pungent. This is perfectly normal and harmless, caused by sulfurous compounds in the vegetable.
There are hundreds of varieties of asparagus, though only about 20 are edible; others are purely ornamental and some are toxic when eaten. Most asparagus in the U.S. is green, with some tender and sweet purple varieties popping up every now and again. In Europe, white asparagus is grown under banked soil or sand (or black tarps) to keep it from producing chlorophyll and turning green. These fatter spears are preferred for their mild and gentle flavor.