As is true of strawberries, ramps, peas, and tulips, asparagus are among the (very welcome!) signs that spring has arrived. Here’s how to choose it smartly, plus how to store and eat it.
You’re probably familiar with green asparagus, but have you tried the white or purple varieties yet? If not, they’re just as tasty, and perhaps even more breathtaking. White asparagus is more common in Europe, where it’s covered with mulch to avoid the development of chlorophyll, and it should be thoroughly cooked (as opposed to green or purple). Purple asparagus can be treated largely like green asparagus, and tends to turn green when cooked. The tastiest asparagus will be the kind you spy at the farmer’s market; older asparagus—often shipped to America from Peru—is a less environmentally sound choice and tends to be less sweet and more fibrous.
No matter what hue you crave, look for asparagus with tightly closed tips that don’t look or feel slimy, and make sure the spear doesn’t look dry or ridged. Inspect the root ends to make sure they are green, not brown, and that they don’t look or feel “woody.” If you’re allowed to try a stalk, nibble the root, which is often sweetest, according to Mike Wajda, executive chef of Proof on Main of Louisville, Kentucky’s 21c Museum Hotel. (He loves asparagus, and currently has it three different ways on his menu!) Choose stalks that feel like they could easily snap near the base and that don’t feel bendy, he says, which often means they’ve become woody, and that they’re likely older.
Wajda likes to store his asparagus in “nice, lint-free towels” that are moist, keeping them cold, but you can also store them in damp paper towels wrapped in plastic (a neat tip from this thorough New York Times primer) or standing in a bunch, with the elastic band still around them, in an inch or so of water in the refrigerator. Some recommend a plastic bag loosely wrapped around the top of the stalks, too. Just try to wait to wash your asparagus until you’re ready to eat it.
Nibble your asparagus near the bottom of the stalk, its sweetest section, which will help determine how you prepare it; large, sweet stalks of sweet asparagus can be shaved for raw salads. If the stalks are slender, you may be able to use the whole thing, but it’s best to break about an inch off that bottom end. (The asparagus, if it’s fresh, should snap naturally, but you can also use a knife.)
You don’t need to peel the slender stems if roasting, sautéing, or frying them whole, but you may want to peel the lower halves of larger stems. You can blanch asparagus or steam it, boil it or fry it, or roast it, which tends to sweeten the slightly bitter notes up a bit. You can make leek-asparagus soup with dill and cilantro, spin it into risotto with mushrooms and ramps, or make breakfast sandwiches with it, all recipes contained in Ian Knauer’s cookbook The Farm.
Wajda loves cooking asparagus with ham, lemon, olive oil, prosciutto, and rosemary. For a simple preparation, he suggests roasting it with salt and olive oil and deglazing the pan using white wine, turning it into a sauce with lemon zest or juice and a little bit of olive oil. Or keep it raw, split it in half length-wise, and wrap it in good ham or soppressata with fennel pollen and drizzle with olive oil. (You can even sear the ham on the stovetop once you’ve wrapped it, seam-side down, and serve it warm as an appetizer.)
Asparagus plays well with flavors in many different cuisines, but I’m particularly partial to this fonduta recipe from April Bloomfield, which mingles the veggie with egg noodles, crème fraiche, egg yolks and plenty of Parmesan—to magnificent effect.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.