Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which Nozlee Samadzadeh breaks down our favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more by the numbers.
Spring is finally here and so is its lovely green herald, asparagus -- our vegetable of the week. We're just starting to see them at the Greenmarket here in New York City, although the delicate, purple-topped spears tied into fat bundles sell out fast.
1. In the Garden: Have you ever seen an asparagus plant? Fully grown they look like tall ferns with impossibly thin stalks, swaying in the wind. They're not the easiest to grow: an asparagus root, called a "crown," takes 3-4 years to mature enough to produce healthy asparagus stalks (you know it's ready to harvest when the plant's shoots are about finger-size in thickness -- if you want thicker spears, wait another season). That's a big investment, but once a plant is established it will produce asparagus every spring for up to 20 years -- so not a true perennial, but it might as well be!
The part of the asparagus that we eat is actually the baby shoot of the plant. Harvesting them is easy: just cut or snap off each spear when it gets to 8-10 inches tall (wait any longer and the stems will start to get woody). Don't cut too deep, though, or you might harm other buds in the asparagus crown that will send up their own shoots. Asparagus has a short season, but they're prolific plants: in warm weather, they can grow an inch per hour! Harvesting in the cooler mornings is best, before the heat of the day sets new spears shooting up (that you might be tempted to harvest before their prime).
At the end of the season (or when the asparagus crowns run out of new buds to send up as shoots), let the plants "go to seed" -- ignore them and let their tall ferniness go unchecked. Letting the plants develop flowers and then seeds actually strengthens the crowns in preparation for winter. You can cut down the ferns once fall comes around, and then the waiting game starts until next spring!
2. Varieties: Though there are about 300 plant varieties, the three most common types of asparagus are green, white, and purple. White asparagus is actually just green asparagus that has been shielded from the sun. Mounding soil over the plants or growing them in the dark inhibits the development of chlorophyll, which some say makes for a more delicately flavored vegetable. Purple asparagus, on the other hand, is a manmade hybrid developed in Italy with an especially sweet taste.
3. In the Kitchen: Asparagus isn't a fussy vegetable -- just snap off or shave the bottom of the stems and you're done. (Be sure to save the stems for stock!) The preparations of asparagus are as delicious as they are diverse:
• Slaw is the perfect way to use sweet early-season asparagus. Bonus: no cooking required!
• Flash broil them in the oven with olive oil and smoked paprika for crispy tops and tender stalks.
• Saute them in a pan with butter -- we recommended topping the stalks with shallots, chile, and lemon or pancetta and breadcrumbs.
• Dip the stalks in feather-light batter and deep fry for crispy tempura.
• Steam or blanch spears before folding into risotto, serving alongside fried Meyer lemons, or pureeing into soup.
You can even pickle them, like Rick's Picks does. Whatever you do, don't can them -- asparagus stalks are sweet sunshine in a skinny green container, spring's gift to us after a long winter. Why would you turn them into mush?
Of course, no discussion of asparagus is complete without their qualities...post-digestion. Asparagus is known to cause an unpleasant, sulphurous smell in the asparagus eater's urine -- but as this study at the Monell Chemical Senses Center proved, only some people produce the odor, and only some people can smell it! Isn't it strange to think that you can produce the sulphurous smell but never know that you do?
In any case, it's nothing to dwell on for too long! Asparagus is a vegetable to get your fill of now -- I polish off whole platefuls every spring knowing I won't have it again for a while. Eating seasonally can be bittersweet, but it sure is delicious.