There’s nothing quite like asparagus to herald the first days of spring. The vernal equinox may be the official indicator, sharing the sunlight and darkness evenly, but to me it will always be asparagus that puts me in the springtime mood.
While asparagus is available much of the year, it is the most tender and sweetest in early spring. Over the course of the season, the plant’s reserve of stored energy depletes and the shoots have less sugar content, so this is one of those vegetables you should look for on the early side to get the best experience.
Like all fresh produce, asparagus has a shelf life. Asparagus is exceptionally good at consuming its reserve of sugars, which means its flavor dulls, loses juiciness and becomes fibrous faster than many other vegetables. When the soft tissues of the asparagus break down, you are left with lignin. Lignin is a strengthening agent used by cell walls to enable stability in taller vegetation, which is handy for the plant, but bad news if you plan to eat it. In fact, lignin is actually the defining element of wood – the word for “wood” in latin is lignum. So when a recipe instructs you to “remove the woody ends” of asparagus, they’re not kidding.