Labour-intensive to grow, asparagus are considered to be one of the delicacies of the vegetable world, with a price tag to match, and have a distinct, intense savoury flavour. In England, “sprue” is the name for extra-thin spears, called “grass asparagus” or “spaghetti grass” in America.
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), a perennial plant in the lily family, is the cultivated version of wild asparagus shoots (Asparagus acutifolius) that grow in the Mediterranean. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks ate wild asparagus shoots as a rare spring delicacy, and asparagus has been prized by nobility for hundreds of years.
An underground stem (or crown) produces edible shoots for about 6 weeks each spring. If left alone, the tips (actually branches-to-be) sprout into tall, feathery, dill-like fronds. Asparagus is a diuretic and you may notice a distinctive odour in your urine after eating it.
Spears range in size from pencil-thin to thick jumbo stalks. While French asparagus is purple, the British and American varieties are green. In contrast, Spanish and Dutch asparagus is white, as it's grown beneath the soil and cut just as the tips emerge. Many Northern Europeans prefer white asparagus because of its delicate flavour and fiberless texture. In asparagus season in Germany, restaurants offer a Spargelkarte, a special asparagus menu. Thin asparagus is popular in Italy, while Provençal cooks prize violet asparagus.
- Other Names
- Asparagus is available year-round in supermarkets. In America, buy asparagus at the end of November until early July, with peak season from March through June.
- Pick firm, plumb, straight, round spears in a medium green with purple highlights. The tips should be tight and compact and the white, woody bottoms should be less than 15 percent of the total length. The cut ends should be white or light-coloured. The spears should snap easily when bent. Give the bunch a squeeze; if it squeaks, it's fresh. Because younger plants produce larger shoots, large or jumbo spears can be more tender than thin ones.
- Do not purchase asparagus with wet, slimy, or smelly tips. Reject shriveled spears. Spears with large, white, woody stalks and only a few centimetres of green at the tips have been harvested too late and will be tough.
- All types pack a nutritional punch, with high levels of vitamins A and C, potassium, iron and calcium.
Asparagus is very perishable. Fresh asparagus will last about 3 to 4 days while blanched asparagus can last for 9 months in the freezer.
Do not wash asparagus before storing. Wash it just before using.
To store fresh asparagus, wrap the stalks in a damp cloth and place in a plastic bag that is not airtight. Airtight bags will trap moisture, causing the asparagus to become soggy.
Fresh asparagus can also be stored by trimming 2,5 cm (1 inch) off the stem end. Wrap the ends with a wet paper towel and then stand the spears upright in a glass or upright container filled with 2,5 cm (1 inch) of water.
Place a loose plastic bag over the spear tips and store in the refrigerator crisper.
Wash asparagus under cold running water.
To prepare young, tender asparagus simply trim off the bottom ends of the stalks to the area where the green colour fades. Do not remove the spears.
An alternative method is to snap off the asparagus ends. Hold an asparagus spear firmly and bend it until it breaks naturally. The spear should break at the point where it becomes tough. Visually, the stalks will not be the same length. Keep this in mind when considering your presentation.
To prepare larger spears that are tough and woody, simply cut off the tough woody ends. Do not remove the spears. If the spear seems very tough, peel the skin with a vegetable or asparagus peeler.
An asparagus peeler is a kitchen tool that is used to easily cut and peel the tough layer of outer skin away from the tender meat within the asparagus stalk. This tool contains a peeling blade that comes in contact with the stalk as the upper arm of this utensil is pressed against the stalk as it is manually pulled through and against the peeling blade. The upper arm easily adjusts with pressure to the diameter of the asparagus or any other similar vegetable that is to be peeled.
If visual presentation is important, trim the spears so they are the same length.
“Sprue” needs no preparation other than a wash.
Recipes may call for “cut” asparagus. The spears should be cut at a diagonal in 2,5 and 5 cm (1 and 2 inch) pieces. This technique will expose the most flesh and help to ensure even cooking.
Steaming - Unless otherwise specified in a recipe, steaming asparagus is the most common cooking method used to prepare asparagus.
1.1Tie prepared asparagus into bundles for easier handling. This should allow you to stand asparagus up (depending on pot type) while steaming to ensure even cooking. The asparagus bottoms are dense and take longer to steam when compared to the more fragile tips.
1.2Place bundled asparagus upright in an asparagus steamer, or a double boiler, or a tall lidded pot.
1.3Pour 5 cm (2 inches) water into pot.
1.4Bring water to a boil. Once the water has begun to boil, cover.
1.5Steam asparagus until crisp tender, 2 to 8 minutes. Cooking time will vary dependent on the thickness and age of the asparagus. Fresh asparagus requires less cooking.
1.6If serving asparagus cold, submerge steamed asparagus into cold water and remove immediately to prevent further cooking.
Boiling - Boiling asparagus is the perfect cooking technique for thicker spears.
2.1Fill a large pot with water and add salt.
2.2Bring to a boil over high heat.
2.4Steam asparagus until crisp tender, approximately 2-6 minutes.
2.5Remove the asparagus, place on a kitchen towel and pat dry before serving.
2.6If serving asparagus cold, submerge cooked asparagus into cold water and remove immediately to prevent further cooking.
Grilling - For grilling purposes, avoid the thicker stalks, as they tend to burn on the outside before being fully cooked.
3.1To prevent asparagus from sticking to the grill grate, spray the grill grate with a no-stick spray.
3.2Blanche the asparagus before placing on the grill. Place asparagus into boiling salt water for 1 minute. Remove the asparagus. Submerge asparagus into cold water and remove immediately to prevent further cooking and to set the colour.
3.3Place asparagus on the grill perpendicular to the bars of the grate so the spears do not fall through. Leave a bit of space between asparagus stalks.
3.4Grill asparagus until crisp tender, approximately 5-6 minutes (2-3 minutes per side), turning once.
For easier grilling and visual appeal, skewer 4 to 5 sprigs crosswise, in two places, just below the tips and 2,5 to 5 cm (1 to 2 inches) from the bottom. It is best to leave a bit of space between asparagus stalks.
4.1Preheat the oven to 230°C (450°F).
4.2Spread prepared asparagus spears on a large rimmed baking sheet. Avoid overcrowding. Use 2 trays if needed. Crowded asparagus tends to steam rather than roast.
4.3Drizzle asparagus lightly with your choice of olive oil or vegetable oil. Roll asparagus to coat completely.
4.4Occasionally shake pan for even browning.
4.5Roast asparagus until crisp tender, approximately 11-17 minutes.
Sautéing - Sauté is a French word describing a method for cooking foods in a shallow pan using high heat. The food is cooked in the pan uncovered, in a small quantity of butter or oil.
5.1Cut asparagus into 2,5 to 5 cm (1 to 2 inch) lengths. It is best to cut asparagus at an angle.
5.2Heat a skillet over moderate to high heat, and then add 1 tablespoon olive oil or butter.
5.3When oil is hot, add asparagus and cook 3 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly until asparagus is crisp tender.
6.1Place 500 grams (one pound) of fresh asparagus into a microwavable safe serving bowl. Arrange whole spears with tips towards the center.
6.2Add 60 ml (¼ cup) of water and cover tightly.
6.3Microwave on high a total of 4 to 8 minutes stirring once. If preparing cut asparagus, microwave on high a total of 3 to 6 minutes stirring once.
7.1Avoid cooking asparagus in iron pots. Asparagus reacts to iron. This reaction to iron causes discolouration of the asparagus spear and the iron pot.
7.2Butter and/or garlic are complementary to steamed asparagus. Pour melted butter over steamed asparagus before serving or steam with garlic cloves.
Steam spears in an asparagus steamer.
Boil spears horizontally in 2,5 cm (1 inch) of water in a non-reactive skillet for 3 to 5 minutes, turning occasionally, then remove and run under cold water to “shock” and set the colour.
Toss cooked asparagus with browned butter or extra virgin olive oil, and lemon juice.
Dress steamed asparagus with vinaigrette.
Stir-fry cut spears.
Roast seasoned asparagus in a hot oven.
Boil (for 3-5 minutes) or steam (4-5 minutes, depending on size) then serve with Hollandaise sauce or hot melted butter.
Chop asparagus and bake in a quiche.
Combine with peas, podded broad beans, young spinach leaves and basil for pasta primavera.
Sprinkle with sea salt, brush with oil and roast (for 15 minutes) or grill (5 minutes), then serve with Parmesan shavings and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Wrap asparagus with prosciutto and roast (for 15 minutes) or grill (5 minutes).
Sub Category: Shoots
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