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Asparagus season

Asparagus is a green vegetable that’s easily recognisable for its long, pointy spears. It’s known as a springtime vegetable although due to world trade, you can eat it year-round. Its seasonality makes asparagus more expensive than other vegetables, and the flavour will vary based on where it’s grown. Whether simply steamed, grilled, roasted, or incorporated into a recipe, asparagus brings the taste of green freshness to the table.

I am often asked what asparagus is, exactly? Well, garden asparagus is a herbaceous perennial plant that is a member of the lily family. The slender spears with their pointed, scaled tips that are eaten are actually the young shoots of the plant. If left to grow, these become a giant, feathery fernlike plant that dies back in the autumn. Asparagus plants grow throughout the world. The biggest producers are China, Peru, Germany, and the U.S. They thrive in temperate climates where the ground freezes. The spring thaw and warming temperatures prompt the spears to emerge from the ground. These are harvested once they reach 6-8 inches tall and the thickest spears are a half-inch thick. They start out thin, get thicker as the season progresses, then taper off again.
Growing asparagus does require patience and space. Several square feet are needed per plant, and it can take 3-4 years to produce edible spears once the seeds are planted. This lengthy wait and the short season has given asparagus a luxury vegetable status, which accounts for its occasional higher cost at the market.
There are hundreds of varieties of asparagus, though only about 20 are edible.
Most asparagus are green, with some tender and sweet purple varieties popping up every now and again. In Europe, white asparagus is grown under banked soil or sand (or black tarps) to keep it from producing chlorophyll and turning green. These fatter spears are often preferred for their mild and gentle flavour. In Spain particularly, asparagus comes in three sorts, the wild, the cultivated and the processed. The cultivated and processed are easy enough to understand given the access we have to modern technology, but the fun starts with the wild asparagus.
Wild asparagus, known as esparragos trigueros, “wheat-field” asparagus, because it often grows on the verges of fields, sends up spindly shoots after the early spring rains. It’s part of traditional country cooking here in Andalusia and it is a fun time for youngsters as they go out hunting the wild asparagus after the rainy season.
Asparagus can be cooked many ways, roasted, grilled, steamed, boiled, pan-roasted, fried and so on. How you prepare it depends as much on your taste as the asparagus. Generally speaking, thinner spears are better for roasting, grilling, stir-frying, tossing with pasta, and eating raw in salads. Thicker asparagus is traditionally left whole so its tender, meaty texture can be appreciated. Try it steamed with butter or hollandaise sauce, or blanched and chilled with a vinaigrette, herbs, or other dressing. Since it tends to be the most tender and has the freshest flavour, try the first asparagus of the season lightly steamed with a squirt of lemon. It’s a true taste of spring.
The spears of the Spanish wild asparagus are somewhat bitter and fibrous. However, once cooked in boiling water, they are ready to either be sauteed in olive oil and garlic to be eaten as a stand alone dish or perhaps added to a fabulous Spanish omelette. The taste of asparagus will vary with the season and variety. Generally, it’s an earthy flavour, similar to broccoli, and almost like an intensely flavoured green bean. White and purple varieties are milder, and any type of asparagus will pick up flavour from the food it’s cooked with.
Buy asparagus as soon as possible after it is harvested. Farmers’ markets and stores that buy from local growers are your best bets for extra-tender specimens. In some places, especially along roadsides, asparagus grows wild and is a popular springtime find for foragers. It’s also easy to grow in home gardens, though you will have to wait three years for the first harvest.
Look for smooth skin, compact heads, and freshly cut ends. It should be as bright green (or purple or white for those varieties) as possible to increase your chances of biting into tender spears.
There is so much to know about this fabulous vegetable, and some of the facts are nothing short of fascinating, for example…
l Asparagus has been cultivated for over 2,500 years l White asparagus and green asparagus come from the same plant. Green asparagus gets its colour from sunlight l Green asparagus tends to have higher levels of nutrients, such as protein, as well as ascorbic acid, calcium, thiamin, and niacin l
If you watch closely, you can actually see asparagus grow! During warm weather (around 90 degrees), asparagus can grow up to 7 inches in a single day l While asparagus is slow to mature into to a crop producing vegetable, an asparagus plant can last up to roughly 20 years!
Well, who would have thought?