Debby Maugans, food writer based in Asheville, North Carolina, and author of Small Batch Baking, Small Batch Baking for Chocolate Lovers and Farmer and Chef Asheville.
Bottom Line: That snapping trick you've been using to trim asparagus? Stop it.
It’s easy to see why fresh asparagus has been considered a delicacy for centuries. The sweetly earthy taste and snappy crisp-tender texture (raw or lightly cooked) enchanted kings and queens as far back as ancient Rome—and they would spare no expense to obtain it. Ships sailed in search of it…royal hothouses were built to coddle its growth.
Asparagus, with its mildly sweet flavor and fleeting crispness, benefits perhaps more than any other vegetable from being in-season and recently harvested. The season in the US runs from late February through the end of June. You might be able to find fresh asparagus from other regions of the world almost any time of year, though it is likely to have spent more than an optimal amount of time getting to your local store.
So when asparagus is in season domestically, dive in and enjoy before it’s gone. Here’s how to choose and store asparagus, plus five delicious recipes for giving this vegetable the royal treatment…
Buying: Thick or thin, the stalks should be firm, with tightly closed bud ends. The size of the spears doesn’t affect taste—choose based on how you want to eat them. Thin spears are delicious served raw on a crudité platter, while thick spears are prized for grilling and roasting. You also can shave thicker spears into ribbons with a vegetable peeler to toss in a chilled green salad. (Don’t worry about color varieties—white, purple, pale green or bright green—they don’t affect taste.)
Storing: Cut off about one-half inch of the stalk ends and stand the spears up in a jar (such as a large glass mayonnaise jar) filled with about two inches of water. Place a plastic bag over the spears and jar, and refrigerate for two to three days.
Trimming: To use in any recipe, slice off the fibrous stalk ends. Common misconception: The popular idea that snapping stalks is a good way to get rid of fibrous ends. That can be wasteful—the snapping point can take away some of the tender parts, too. Instead, use a knife to take off the fibrous ends, which will be more dry at the ends and have less vibrant color than the tender parts.
Grilling: To make sure that you don’t lose asparagus to the coals, skewer them first. Spear them side by side onto two water-soaked wooden skewers, held parallel, one to two inches apart. Grill on an oiled rack over high heat until well-marked on both sides—about four minutes on each side. Brush with a basting sauce (see below) during the last minute of grilling, then drizzle the remaining sauce over the asparagus just before serving.
Makes three to four servings
1 pound thick asparagus stalks
2 ounces whole-wheat or buckwheat (soba) noodles, uncooked
3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 Tablespoons minced green onion
8 to 12 fresh basil leaves
3 Tablespoons chopped unsalted, roasted pistachios
Shave trimmed asparagus into ribbons, working with one spear at a time—lay the spear on a cutting board with the stalk end facing you, and gently shave off about four long strips from the top of the spear using a vegetable peeler, starting at stalk end and continuing through the bud end. (If your peeler gets stuck on a protrusion along the stalk and breaks a ribbon, don’t worry—short ones will work fine, too.) After you shave off the top, turn the spear over and you’ll get about three long shavings from that side, too.
Bring a pot of water to a boil, add noodles and cook according to package directions. Add asparagus ribbons during the last minute of cooking. Drain well and rinse with cold running water to cool noodles and asparagus quickly. Drain again.
Grate zest from the lemon into a large bowl, and squeeze the lemon juice into bowl. Whisk in olive oil, salt and pepper. Add pasta and asparagus, cherry tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and green onion. Toss well. Spoon onto serving plates.
Stack basil leaves and roll up tightly. Use scissors to snip off strips of basil on top of pasta. Sprinkle each serving with pistachios, dividing evenly among plates.
Bonus: Looking for even more asparagus ideas? Joe Yonan, food and dining editor of The Washington Post—and editor of America The Great Cookbook—changes his approach throughout the season. “I love cooking asparagus raw or lightly steamed when it’s thin and young—and puréed into pesto when the asparagus is thicker later in the season. But my favorite way is to quickly char it under the broiler, and serve it with a great sauce, like a romesco—a rich Spanish sauce of puréed roasted tomatoes and red peppers, thickened with toasted almonds and bread—or a salsa. For the latter, I wrap it in corn tortillas with an egg and feta for quick and easy tacos.”