One of the benefits of spring is asparagus, and right now the asparagus season is going full bore. This means the vegetable is at its lowest price.
It’s an odd vegetable and is not universally appreciated. Some really, really like the sprout. What we eat is the early shoot of the root ball, which lives just under the surface soil. In the spring it grows a hard, green shoot that, unmolested, grows into a 4-foot tall weed. In late fall the dry, bushy plant goes into hibernation, a true perennial. In early spring the root ball sends up new shoots. This is where we come in; as the small shoots appear we slice them off near the ground.
In less than 24 hours a new edible shoot grows up to 12 inches tall. There are many, many shoots produced each spring by the parent root ball. In commercial farms, the vegetable is harvested daily. They clean and sort the spears by size. The small ones we buy are simply an early version of the plant; the big fat ones are closer to maturation. Asparagus came here from Europe, where it* has been a favorite food for years. It is often included in still-life paintings by the old masters.
So, what do we do with them besides boiling them? Research shows the shoot is best when the tip of the spear is tight, when the little proto plant shoots are still unopened. The base of the shoot often displays a white color with a bit of light purple. Opinions vary on removing the tough base of the spear. Some grip the base, one thumb on the green part and one on the base then force the plant to break. Another school of thought is to peel off the light-colored part of the base. Still another approach is to cut off the white part entirely then set them in water as soon as you get home from the market.
Another method is to trim all the bottoms an inch or so up from the base, much like a cut flower. This approach helps to keep the plant fresh. The shoots are then put in the refrigerator, again like a fresh cut flower. Here an odd reaction can take place; the next morning the water in the asparagus bowl may have developed a layer of ice. Some of the thinner shoots can freeze all the way to the tip, leaving the spear inedible. Changing the water every three days or so can help prolong their shelf life. I have no idea what chemistry takes place but something changes the freeze point of the water. From here the recipes are legion. The following is a recipe for finger-food asparagus.
Trim the light-colored part off the base and set the spears upright in a tall container on a steamer insert. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and crank up the heat. Prepare a “bath” in the sink, fill it about three inches deep with lots of ice cubes. Pour on a bit of water so the bath is deep enough to cover the cooked spears. Check the doneness by stabbing the spear with a fork just up from the base. If the fork goes in with some resistance it is ready to take off the heat. It is easy to overcook the spears, so keep close watch.
Now carefully drain off the boiling water, or if your steamer insert has a handle, all the better. Quickly transfer the spears to the cold-water bath. This does two things. First it stops the cooking process, and second the ice bath shocks the spears which helps them retain a bright green color. Let them float in the ice bath for two or three minutes to chill to the core. Remove them from the ice bath and let them dry on a towel or rack. Once dry they can be stored in a zip-lock bag in the refrigerator, the sooner eaten the better but they will keep for two days. Plate the chilled spears and grace with a lemon rind curly cue. A dip of plain mayonnaise works. A real favorite is Trader Joe’s Aioli mustard, which you can blend with mayonnaise if the mustard taste is too strong. To grill, wash and trim if needed, lightly oil the grill with olive oil and cook them on the grill as you would for any vegetable. Sautéed in olive oil adding a bit of coarsely chopped garlic is a very fine side to an entrée.
Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman. He is the former president of the Sonoma County Mycological Association. Look for his column in The Community Voice each week.