With its uniquely delicate flavour and texture,
asparagus is the quintessential "luxury" vegetable.
Enjoy it in season, when the price goes down: Asparagus contains
a good supply of folate (folic acid), as well as some vitamin
C and, in green asparagus, some beta-carotene. Asparagus also
contains the phytochemical glutathione, which has antioxidant
and anticarcinogenic properties.
Asparagus deteriorates rapidly when not kept cold, so buy asparagus
where it is kept refrigerated or displayed on trays with the
stalks standing in cold water. In outdoor markets, the trays
should be shaded from the sun.
The best-quality spears are firm yet tender,
with deep green or purplish tips that are closed and compact
(with no signs of flowers beginning to form); partially open
or wilted tips are the most obvious signs of aging. Stalks should
stand straight, be green for most of their length, and have
a nicely rounded cross-section; flat or twisted stalks are often
tough and stringy.
Some people like thick stalks, some people
prefer more slender asparagus, but size is not directly related
to quality; still, stalks that measure at least 1/2" in
diameter at the base are usually preferable. Asparagus is usually
sold in bundles, but if you can buy it loose, select spears
of uniform size, which will cook evenly.
When deciding on quantity, remember that
asparagus loses about half of its total weight once it's been
trimmed and cooked. For a main dish, buy half a kilo of asparagus
for two people; as a side dish, the same quantity serves three
Keep fresh asparagus cold to preserve its tenderness and as
much of its natural sweetness as possible. Wrap the stalk bottoms
in a damp paper towel and store in the refrigerator salad drawer;
if you don't have one, put the spears in a plastic bag and store
in the coldest part of the refrigerator. It's best to eat asparagus
the day you buy it, the flavour can diminish noticeably with
each passing day, but it will keep for four to five days if
Wash asparagus in cool running water. If the tips have any sand
on them, dunk them in and out of water, then rinse thoroughly.
Cut or break off the tough bottom ends of the stalks.
Cook asparagus quickly, or it will be unappetisingly
limp and discoloured and have a bitter taste. The stalks are
done when you can pierce the bottom end with the point of a
paring knife. After cooking, lift out the spears and let them
drain for a minute on a paper towel. If you plan to serve the
asparagus cold, plunge it immediately into cold water to stop
it from cooking further.
One of the best ways to cook asparagus is to steam it upright
in a small amount of water; this way, the delicate tips of the
stalks will cook at the same rate as the thick bottoms. Use
a tall, lidded pot, or a double boiler (invert the upper portion
over the lower). There are also special asparagus cookers designed
for this purpose. Or, you can lay the stalks flat in a collapsible
vegetable steamer placed in a large skillet.
To handle the asparagus easily, tie the spears
into bundles of 10 with kitchen string. Add 2" of water
to the pot, bring to a rapid boil, then cover. (You can add
a clove of garlic, a slice of onion, or a lemon wedge to the
water.) Cooking time: five to eight minutes, depending on the
thickness of the spears.
Cut the spears into 1" to 2" pieces for stir-frying.
For an attractive look, cut the asparagus pieces on the diagonal.
Cooking time: three to five minutes.
Bring about 1" of water to a rapid boil in a large skillet;
drop in the asparagus, adding the thickest stalks first and
letting them cook for a minute before adding the rest. Quickly
bring to a second boil and cook, uncovered. Cooking time: three
to five minutes, depending on thickness.
Arrange a bunch of spears in an oblong microwavable dish, with
the tips pointing toward the center. Add 60ml of water and cover.
Rotate the dish halfway through the cooking time. Cooking time:
five to seven minutes.
Trim the stalks, then place them in a baking dish and lightly
drizzle with a small amount of olive oil. Roast them uncovered
at 500ºF/ 250°C / gas mark 9. Cooking time: eight to