Although asparagus can be found almost year round in most grocery stores, it is only harvested in the US from March to June or July. Washington, California and Michigan are the largest domestic producers of asparagus. In March, the first shoots are peeking their way out of the soil in California. By April, this delicious vegetable is ready to be picked in Washington and finally in May – the farmers in Michigan start harvesting their crop.
Asparagus is an amazingly beautiful vegetable. There are two main colors of asparagus – white and green. White asparagus is not a separate variety; it is white because it is grown completely underground so that no chlorophyll develops. Green asparagus, which is either purely green or has green stalks with purple tinged leaves is sold in a range of sizes from very thin pencil asparagus to thick and juicy jumbo size. When considering which size to purchase, don’t get fooled into thinking that thinner asparagus will be more tender. While the skin of smaller asparagus will be slightly more delicate there is less of the juicy inner core, so the overall effect is that thinner asparagus has a firmer bite to it.
From a nutritional standpoint asparagus has a lot to offer. It is a good source of vitamin C, thiamin and riboflavin and an excellent source of folate. It also provides protein and fiber. Perhaps most importantly asparagus is high in cancer fighting antioxidants.
When purchasing asparagus always make sure to check out the tips of the spears, if they are wet or mushy at all – choose another bunch. Buy asparagus that is firm and crisp, without any shriveled spears. When you get the asparagus home, keep it fresh and hydrated by storing it standing upright in a tall container with one inch of water in the bottom. Don’t store it near fruits like apples or bananas which give off ethylene; there is some evidence that ethylene causes the asparagus stalks to become woody.
When you are ready to cook the asparagus, wash it first by soaking it in a cold-water bath. It can be sandy and allowing it to soak helps insure that your finished dish won’t be gritty. Once the asparagus is clean you will need to remove a bit of the bottom part of the stalk, which you can do by simply holding the spear close to the bottom and bending it until the bottom inch or so snaps off. For thicker asparagus, it is best to just cut off the bottom inch. Thick asparagus generally should be peeled starting two inches from the top down to the bottom of the spear. The outer layer contains cellulose fibers, which don’t soften when you cook them.
Asparagus can be eaten raw, but most people prefer it cooked. It is a very versatile vegetable and tastes great steamed, boiled, sautéed, grilled or roasted. However you choose to cook it, asparagus is a healthy and delicious addition to any meal.