Asparagus - A Perennial Favorite
The term “asparagus tips” carries a double entendre. It refers to the coveted part of the perennial plant – the tight feathery, ubertender bit—that shoots through the ground to help kick off the spring harvest. And it represents a body of culinary knowledge regarding how to best clean, cook and eat every spear you can get your hands on during its short season in the northeast.
Yes, we can buy grocery store asparagus pretty much any time of year since Peru got into the high-growth export game in the late 1990s. But it’s one of those vegetables – like peas and corn – that contains a lot of sugar right when it’s picked. As asparagus is stored for transportation over long distances, the sugar rapidly turns to starch, and the once sweet, tender spears turn tough, woody and bland, making local your best bet for the best tasting asparagus.
The picked-fresh-from-the-garden variety of asparagus requires two things from a gardener: patience and understanding. It takes three years to cultivate a productive patch, as the first two years of spears must be allowed to go to seed to ensure an ample future harvest. The third year of the patch, its first harvest, is where the understanding comes into play. A gardener must know that not every shoot will be the same size or thickness or have the same color or curvature as the one it grows next to. Accept what comes, and adjust cooking times accordingly to accommodate fat or skinny, curved or stick straight stems.
The same growing parameters apply for local farmers, but the price tag at the market will duly reflect the fact that every spear has to be harvested by hand. Sometimes the asparagus will be snapped off the stalks so that you’ll only be buying edible bits. But most of the time, the farmer will choose to cut it off just below ground level because the tougher bottomed spear will better hold onto its moisture for its trip to market. The cook will then have to snap those off at their natural breaking point as they aren’t edible, but they do make a smashing broth (see recipe) that can be used as a base for springtime soups and risottos.
The actual tips of the asparagus are their flowers, but the buds should be very tightly closed when you buy them and should always be soaked in cold water just before cooking to avoid serving any of the dirt through which they pushed. Since the season is so short, buy lots of asparagus. Divide it into bunches according to thickness. Blanch each bunch in boiling, salted water for two to three minutes until it’s a vibrant green and tender but still crisp at the center. Plunge each bundle into ice water and dry the spears on a clean towel. These pre-prepped spears will hold in the fridge all week until you are ready to use them in any of the following recipes or simply warm them up in some melted butter.