By Kathleen Purvis / The Charlotte Observer
Asparagus is the deal breaker: Strawberries are pretty, and tender lettuce is nice. But the arrival of fresh asparagus is the harbinger of spring.
Nearly 100 farmers in a 100-mile radius of the Tri-Cities are harvesting and packing millions of pounds of asparagus to send to market. According to the Washington Asparagus Commission, 21 million pounds of Washington asparagus were harvested and made a roughly $36 million economic impact last year.
Although Mother Nature will dictate this season’s yield, the commission estimates growers and packers will have an even better year.
With really fresh asparagus, boiling or steaming isn’t the best way to go. Its grassy flavor is better with methods that concentrate the flavor — roasting, or pan-frying, even microwaving. It’s perfect for really fast cooking. Overcooked asparagus is limp. Good asparagus needs just a little crunch.
The season for the very best asparagus — that which is grown in Washington — doesn’t last long, just about two months. Make the best of it with these tips, and three delicious asparagus dishes:
Choose it: Look for tight heads (if they’re shedding, skip them). Check the bottom of the cut ends. If they’re so dry they have holes, skip them. Avoid stalks that have ridges, a sign they’re old or woody. They should also be odorless.
Check that the asparagus is grown in Washington: Look for the rubber bands around each bunch or hang tags in the produce section of the grocery store that identify it as a Washington vegetable. Or ask the produce steward.
Which size? Depends on what you’re doing with it: Thin spears are great for slicing into short sections and sauteing. Fat are best for roasting, grilling and shaving into raw asparagus salad. Medium can go either way.
Which color? While it’s not as abundant and commonly grown as green, asparagus also comes in white. White asparagus is white because it is grown in the absence of light under mounds of soil so the spears do not have the opportunity to undergo photosynthesis.
Store it: Wrap a wet paper towel around the bottoms and tuck into an open plastic bag with the tops sticking out. If you have the room, you can also stand the bunch up in a little water in a jar and refrigerate it. Asparagus are thirsty. Keep it up to a week.
Snap or peel? If you hold a stalk between your two hands and gently bend it, it will snap off right where the bottom of the stalk (the white part) gets too tough. If you can’t bear to lose that much, cut off the bottom half-inch to 2 inches, then use a vegetable peeler to shave off the tough skin for several inches up the stalk. (Snapping is faster, though.)
White asparagus is tougher, so you will need to peel the stalks a couple of inches below the tip.
Pick an appliance
Oven: Toss trimmed stalks with a little oil. Spread in a single layer on a baking pan. Sprinkle with some coarse salt. Place in the oven at 425 degrees and roast for 10 to 12 minutes, giving the pan a good jerk about halfway through to roll the spears.
Stove: This method originally came from the late Edna Lewis: Trim the bottoms of the spears. Place 1 to 2 tablespoons butter in a cast-iron skillet and heat until foaming. Lay the asparagus stalks in the skillet and roll around to coat with the butter. Cover and cook over medium heat about 3 minutes. Uncover and turn the stalks. Cook with the lid off 4 to 5 minutes longer, until tender but still bright green. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve hot.
Microwave: Food Network personality Alton Brown came up with this, and it’s my go-to asparagus method. Trim off the ends. Pour 1⁄4 cup water into a plate, then place a two-sheet length of paper towels on it to soak up the water. Place all the asparagus on the towel in a single layer and sprinkle with salt. Roll up. Microwave for 3 to 4 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears. Use tongs to unroll the paper towels.
Grill: Toss with a little oil (olive or vegetable). Lay across the grates so you don’t lose any, then cover and grill about 2 minutes. Uncover the grill, use tongs to roll them around, cover and cook no more than 2 minutes. Remove from heat, sprinkle with salt and serve.
Fresh mushrooms can be used instead of jarred ones. But make sure to cook them down a bit so the resulting liquid from the cooking process doesn’t make the dish sloppy. I chose to use white asparagus with this dish and tossed black sesame seeds on top for some color contrast. Warning: The white asparagus is not as attractive on the plate as green.
1 pound of asparagus
1 (4-ounce) jar of sliced mushrooms, drained
2 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon of lemon juice
1 teaspoon of sesame seeds, toasted
Prepare asparagus (snap for green, peel for white) then cook in a small amount of boiling salted water in a covered pan until crisp-tender. Time depends on your preference and the thickness of the stalks. Drain well.
Transfer to a microwave safe oblong dish and add mushrooms, butter and lemon juice. Heat through in the microwave. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.
Makes 6 servings.
— Adapted from the cookbook “Better Homes and Gardens All-Time Favorite Vegetable Recipes.” by Doris Eby. (Meredith Corporation)
Asparagus with hollandaise
A nice hollandaise is a classic accoutrement to asparagus. Because of the color contrast, I served it with the green asparagus. Remember not to overcook the hollandaise; you’ll know it’s done when it is thick enough to coat a metal spoon.
2 egg yolks
¼ cup butter, melted
¼ cup boiling water
1½ tablespoons of lemon juice
¼ teaspoon of salt
Dash of cayenne pepper
In top of a double boiler, beat egg yolks with a wire whisk until smooth.
Gradually add the butter, a little at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition.
Gradually add water, again beating thoroughly with the wire whisk. Place top of double boiler over simmering water in base. (Water should not touch the top pan.) Cook over simmering water, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens. Do not overcook as sauce will curdle.
Gradually beat in lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Spoon over the cooked asparagus.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
— Recipe adapted from “McCall’s Cooking School” (McCall’s Publishing Co.)
Roasted asparagus with Parmesan
It’s often said that less is more, and fresh asparagus proves the point. In this bare bones recipe, asparagus gets seasoned with salt, pepper and cheese, and yields a delectable result.
1½ pounds of white and green asparagus
1 tablespoon olive oil
Coarse salt and ground pepper, to taste
¼ cup of Parmesan-Romano cheese
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Prepare asparagus by trimming tough stalks and removing ends.
On a rimmed baking sheet, toss asparagus with olive oil; season with coarse salt and ground pepper. Spread in an even layer. Sprinkle with cheese.
Roast until asparagus is tender and cheese is melted, 10 to 15 minutes.
Makes 4 servings.
— Recipe from www.marthastewart.com.
Information from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Washington Asparagus Commission was added to this report.
Asparagus health benefits
Asparagus is a good source of vitamin A and vitamin C and is among the best vegetable sources for folate (a prenatal staple to help prevent birth defects) and glutathione (an anticarcinogen and antioxidant). It contains no fat, no cholesterol and is very high in fiber. Learn more at www.waasparagus.com.
Washington asparagus facts
Washington state is the second largest grower of asparagus in the United States.
In Washington, asparagus is produced on roughly 5,000 acres spanning the Columbia Basin, the Yakima Valley and the Walla Walla area.
The average asparagus farm in Washington is 75 acres.
Imports of fresh asparagus from Peru and Mexico keep Washington in year-round supply, but the short distance from farm to retail for U.S. asparagus, specifically Washington produced, make local asparagus the freshest.
Washington’s mineral-rich volcanic soils, abundant natural water supply, warm sunny days and cool nights provide ideal growing conditions for asparagus.
The harvest season for Washington State runs late March to mid June. This year, farmers have been harvesting and packing asparagus since the first week of May.
Asparagus can grow as much as 10 inches in one day during the warmest part of the season.
Asparagus is labor intensive. A farmer must harvest his or her fields of asparagus every day of the season. Because the fragile spears rise from the earth in different places daily and are relatively fragile, each one must be individually hand-cut from the ground.
Washington state goes an extra step above USDA standards for its asparagus to offer “extra fancy” fresh asparagus, which means tighter, more uniformly-packed stalks and superior quality. In this respect, Washington is a standout as a supplier of fresh asparagus.
The difference in spear diameter has no bearing on fresh asparagus’ flavor, texture, color or tenderness.
The woody, cut ends are great for flavoring soup stocks.
— Washington Asparagus Commission