Photo from Liz West

If ever there was a harbinger of spring, it’s asparagus.  As the days grow longer and the soil warms, asparagus suddenly springs into life, sending up shoots that can grow 6 to 10 inches a day.  At its peak asparagus can grow almost faster than it can be harvested. This vitality has, over the ages, put it high on the list of foods which have special powers to increase potency and sexual vigor!  Whether this is true or not, asparagus leads nearly all produce in the wide array of nutrients it supplies in significant amounts. A leading supplier of folic acid, which is essential for blood cell formation, growth, and prevention of liver disease, a 5 ounce serving provides nearly 60% of the recommended daily allowance. With less than 20 calories per 5 ounce serving, asparagus is also a good source for thiamine and vitamins C and B6.

Types of Asparagus
Though there are many species of asparagus we eat just one, “asparagus officinalis”.  The basic difference in what we see in the market is color.

•    Green:  This is what most of us buy.  It comes thick or thin and now is available much of the year in supermarkets since it is grown widely around the world and shipped to us.  Nice that it’s more available but time from harvest affects both its flavor and texture.  Asparagus purists sound the same mantra as those who love corn:  For best flavor get it from the “plot to the pot” (or grill or oven) as quickly after harvest as you can.

•    Purple:  Purple asparagus originated from the region around Albenga, Italy. This “cultivar” is known as Violetto di Albenga and you’ll see it in specialty food markets primarily.  It’s almost always more expensive than green since purple hybrids produce fewer stalks per plant. Many say that purple is sweeter and more tender than green so it’s great used raw in salads.  Unfortunately its beautiful purple color fades to green when it is cooked unless just very briefly stir fried.

•    White:  The most expensive of the three because it requires much more work to produce. Earth has to be constantly heaped up over the spears as they grow, to prevent exposure to sunlight which would develop their chlorophyll and turn them green. Fresh white asparagus is hard to find in America unless you are in a large, sophisticated urban market. In Europe it’s widely available fresh during the spring and highly prized.  It’s also readily available canned there and in America as well.  Canned white asparagus is used mostly in composed salads. White asparagus has a flavor all of its own – – it tends to be milder than the other two and often will have just a touch of pleasant bitterness.

What to Look For
Whether you prefer the thick or thin spears of whatever color, be certain they are fresh. The sugar in the plant quickly converts to starch after harvesting, causing a loss in flavor and development of a woody texture.
Select firm, straight, smooth, rich green stalks with tightly-closed tips. Open tips, ridges in the stems and a dull green color are an indication of old age. The stalks should not be limp or dry at the cut. Choose stalks of uniform thickness for more control in the cooking process.

How to Store

With all types of asparagus, do not wash before storing and never soak it. Trim the ends of fresh asparagus and stand them upright in a jar with about an inch of water in the bottom. Cover with a plastic bag and store spears in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Size Really Doesn’t Tell You Much

The conventional wisdom is that the thin, pencil size asparagus are more tender than those that are fatter.  Truth is that diameter of the stalk isn’t necessarily a good guide to its tenderness.  Actually the fatter the spear usually the more tender.  Reason:  No matter what its size, each spear has a set number of tough fibers that run its length.  In a small spear they are crammed together and there is less juicy white flesh between them.  With fatter spears the fibers are further apart separated by more tender, sweet flesh.

And now for a recipe, to get you cooking with the delicious asparagus you’ve chosen!

Serves 4
Lemon infused olive oil is available in Italian markets and good gourmet and stores.  Agrumato brand from Italy and “O” from California both make great citrus infused oils.
1 pound fresh asparagus, tough ends discarded
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt such as Maldon’s
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons or so Italian or California lemon infused extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup Pecorino or Parmigiano cheese shaved thinly with a vegetable peeler
8 very thin slices prosciutto
3 tablespoons capers, drained, patted dry and fried till crisp in olive oil   Lemon wedges

Brush the asparagus with the olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Over hot coals or a gas grill preheated to medium high grill the asparagus till it takes on a bit of color.  Roll and turn so that it’s marked on all sides but still green and crisp.  Place on a plate and drizzle with lemon olive oil. Scatter cheese over, arrange prosciutto attractively on top and sprinkle capers around. Serve lemon wedges on the side.  Add more salt and pepper if desired.