Asparagus is not only delicious, but incredibly healthy. In addition to being high in fiber, low in sodium and calories, it’s also among the leading supplier among vegetables of folic acid. Folic acid is necessary for blood cell formation, growth and the prevention of liver disease. It also has been shown to play a significant role in the prevention of birth defects such as spina bifida, which causes the death of many babies each year.
Asparagus (actually part of the lily family) are botanically called “phylloclades” (FEE-low-klades). These are plants that don’t have leaves but instead, have photosynthetic branches. (Photosynthesis: The process where plants that are exposed to the sun, capture the energy in sunlight and store it in the form of sugar molecules.)
White asparagus taste the same as green but, once cooked, they have a slightly smoother texture. They are grown underground so the chlorophyll contained in the cell walls can’t interact with sunlight and therefore don’t develop the more familiar green color (pigment). In this case, the process of photosynthesis is prevented and these asparagus are a creamy white color.
Contrary to the natural assumption, the term “young” when referring to asparagus, has nothing to do with when it’s picked. The term is referring to the age of the plant itself. Since asparagus plants usually thrive for between eight and ten years, it’s the vegetable from the younger plants that are the most thin and wispy. Those stalks with a wider girth are from older plants and contain more “lignin” which is the tough, woody and fibrous part (at the bottom of the vegetable) that won’t soften, even after cooking. The older the plant (not the length of time the vegetable sits on the plant before being picked) is what determines the ultimate girth and overall texture of the vegetable. The woody bottoms are either cut or broken off. Peeling is only necessary if the stalk is uneven in girth (after trimming). A fatter mid and bottom section will cause uneven cooking so a vegetable peeler should be run down the stalk, beginning at the point where it begins to widen.
In order to retain its firm texture and bright green color, asparagus should be cooked quickly and served immediately or blanched (briefly boiled and then quickly refreshed in ice water to stop the cooking process). An eight-quart blanching pot with a built-in strainer is extremely useful but not essential. Blanched asparagus may be served chilled, or finished up to three days later by baking or sautéing (see the following mini recipes).
To peel or not to peel asparagus: White asparagus should always be peeled before cooking since their outer texture can be a bit tough and stringy. Green asparagus, however, should not be peeled unless cooking specimens that have a varied girth. In this case, peeling would help the thick ones to require the same amount of cooking times as the thinner stalks. If very fat, peeling green asparagus can help them to become a bit more tender after cooking, but this has more to do with personal preference.
To peel asparagus you’ll work with one asparagus at a time. After cutting off their woody ends, place one stalk flat on your work surface with the floweret pointing toward you. Run the blade of a vegetable peeler gently down the shaft, starting a bit below where the floweret ends, rotating the stalk as you go, until you’ve peeled all sides. Tie the asparagus in bunches as described below.
To prepare asparagus for cooking: Wash asparagus (especially the tips, which can trap lots of grit) and trim off the woody ends using a sharp knife or snap off the tough fibrous bottom. Although unnecessary, you may use a vegetable peeler to remove the outer skin of each asparagus starting 2 inches below the floret in a firm but gentle downward motion. Peeling is not advised in young, delicate asparagus. Separate asparagus into 2 or 3 bunches and tie each bunch twice, 2 inches apart, with kitchen twine.
To blanch asparagus: Bring a large pot of water to boil and set a large bowl of ice water on the counter. Lightly salt boiling water and lower asparagus bundles into pot. The cooking time will be determined by the age, thickness and ultimate use of the asparagus. To serve chilled, cook until tender but al dente (slightly firm to the teeth), 4 to 8 minutes, checking after 4 minutes. If blanching to finish later, cook until stalks are softened but not yet tender, 3 to 6 minutes, checking after 3 minutes. In either case, immediately lift asparagus out of the boiling water and plunge into the bowl of ice water. (To lift bundles if not using a blanching pot, insert one of the prongs of a long kitchen fork under one of the strings that secure each bunch.) When asparagus is cold to the touch, remove from the ice water, lay on paper toweling and snip off the strings in order to drain properly. Gently pat dry and either use now or roll up carefully in a paper towel and place into a heavy plastic bag. Seal and keep refrigerated for up to 3 days. Enjoy cold or cook further as directed in given recipe.
To cook asparagus fully: Place prepared asparagus in a large pot of boiling water as for blanching. Check after 4 minutes; the larger, thicker stalks might require as much as 10 minutes. Fully cooked asparagus should be tender but never overly soft or they will become limp and stringy. Lift from water, drain well and serve immediately drizzled with melted butter and seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
To roast asparagus: This is best done with thin stalks. Rinse and drain the bunches of raw asparagus, then cut off their woody bottoms and discard. Cut the bunches into 1 ½ to 2 inch lengths and toss with some extra-virgin olive oil or melted butter (or a combo) that’s mixed with some minced fresh garlic. Place on a shallow baking sheet, lined with aluminum foil and sprinkle the top with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Roast in a preheated 450F oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until tender and beginning to caramelize. Serve hot.
Asparagus Baked with Bread Crumbs: Take asparagus that need further cooking and place in a greased baking dish. Brush spears lightly with melted butter or extra-virgin olive oil. Top with dried bread crumbs mixed with sesame seeds or chopped toasted pine nuts and a small handful of freshly grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese. Add a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper and a bit of salt to taste. Cover well and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days; then bake the asparagus on a night when you want to embellish beautifully a simple meal. To bake, place in preheated 350°F oven until piping hot throughout, about 20 minutes.
Asparagus Sautéed in Butter: Another way to use pre-blanched asparagus is to dredge the spears in seasoned flour, dip the stalks in some beaten egg and sauté the coated asparagus in hot butter or olive oil in a non-stick skillet until golden on all sides. Sprinkle spears lightly with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper and serve immediately with seedless lemon wedges.