Season’s Eatings: Asparagus

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.

There is controversy as to whether you should prepare your asparagus by snapping off the woody ends, cutting some of the lower portion stalks off, or peeling the ends. For me, it depends on what I am using the asparagus to make, as well as how long I have been storing it (and possibly how long it might have been on the grocer’s shelves). Generally, I tend to go for the snapping method, freezing the discarded ends for future use in vegetable stocks. If I’m already shaving asparagus to use in a salad or on a pizza, I just cut off the dry ends and shave the whole thing. The best way to keep the most vegetable is to purchase asparagus as close to when you plan to eat it as possible. As with most produce, but particularly with asparagus, it’s best to seek out the freshest, sweetest, and least-time-spent-out-of-the-ground spears at your local farmer’s market.

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Asparagus at the Sunnyvale Farmer's Market

When spring asparagus is abundant, it makes me want to eat it morning, noon and night. Good thing, then, that asparagus is delicious as part of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or anything in between!

Another thing I love about spring is that feeling of emerging from a state of hibernation. Having enjoyed several months of hunkering under blankets with a book, and keeping the social habits of hermits, spring encourages me to arrange food-related gatherings. Like brunch, for example. I don’t often participate in brunch, but it always seems like the perfect way to celebrate food, friends and pleasant weather. Lucky for me, asparagus really likes brunch too. Asparagus pairs well with eggs and egg-based sauces, like a hollandaise, as well as bacon or pancetta. It also works well with citrus, using the juice or zest as a bright accent to the dish, as a fresh-squeezed orange, lemon or grapefruit juice by its side, or maybe a mimosa.

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Asparagus, bacon, eggs, thyme and crème fraîche in a puff pastry crust - a simple, yet perfectly elegant spring brunch

When it comes to lunch, there is nothing more quintessential than The Sandwich. I have been looking forward to making The Kitchn’s boiled egg, seared asparagus and pickled red onion sandwich since asparagus season ended last year. In fact, I couldn’t wait to eat it again the second I’d finished it. We particularly like Sierra Nevada’s Porter Mustard for this sandwich. I’m expecting it to be even better when we make our own mustard with some of our porter homebrew. Simple ingredients and simple preparations, but what a combination! This is not just a sandwich, it’s an experience.

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Tasty, tasty experience.

You can also invite asparagus to dinner. As a soup, part of a risotto, blanched, grilled, roasted, seared, battered and fried, asparagus has the flexibility to be wherever you want it to be. You couldn’t put together a better dish to celebrate the produce of spring than featuring asparagus in a pasta with another springtime rarity, ramps.

I haven’t come across any ramps yet this season, but keep an eye out for them. The first time I tasted ramps was in the context of journalist Anna Watson Carl’s Ramp, Asparagus and Arugula Linguine, featured on Design*Sponge. You might think that an ingredient that’s not quite either onion nor garlic wouldn’t matter all that much, but I was blown away by the flavor and the combination with the asparagus. Over homemade pasta too – it really just doesn’t get better than that!

Easier to find is pancetta, which we use to wrap around thicker spears and roast until the pancetta is crispy and the asparagus almost melted. Though this might have been considered a side dish to the grass-finished Porterhouse steak we paired with it, the asparagus brought an equal contribution of flavor and prominence to the meal.

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Ingredients: beef, asparagus, pancetta, olive oil, salt, pepper. Easy.

Finding a wine that works well with asparagus can be tricky. Its distinctively verdant flavor messes with wine flavors. Taking a hint from ingredients in asparagus dishes, you’ll want to look for something light and citrusy, possibly with herbal notes. A tannic red or oaky white often tastes metallic and sharp once you’ve been eating asparagus. Better to try a riesling or a sauvignon blanc.

Then there’s the matter of what goes on after you eat asparagus every morning, noon and night. You know. That thing that happens.

“Asparagus has long been notorious for an unusual side effect on those who eat it; it gives a strong odor to their urine. Apparently the body metabolizes a sulfur-containing substance, asparagusic acid, a close chemical relative of the essence of sunk spray called methanethiol.”1 Fun! Fortunately, the effects are temporary.

However you decide to eat asparagus, relish its sweet spring flavor while it lasts. And maybe even try making asparagus relish while you’re at it. Just make sure that you wear a clothespin when you head to the bathroom.

  1. Harold McGee, On Food And Cooking

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