Springtime Asparagus

When I think of spring vegetables – asparagus comes immediately to mind. It’s so fresh and earthy and…well, green. The verdant spears, often tinged with purple at the tips, would make a beautiful bouquet, I think. Asparagus is tender and succulent, healthy and extremely versatile.

In sunny California the first crops are picked as early as February, however, the harvest season here in Washington usually begins in early April and lasts through June. The warm spring days and cool nights provide perfect growing conditions for this perennial crop. 

According to the Washington Asparagus Commission, the vegetable is “the leading natural source for two nutrients that prevent disease and promote a healthy body – folacin and glutathione. Folacin (folic acid) is important for the formation of blood cells and helps prevent birth defects. Asparagus provides 60% of the USDA recommendation of folacin. Glutathione has been shown to be one of the most potent anticarcinogens and antioxidants found within the body. Of all foods tested none was higher in glutathione than asparagus.” 

When shopping for this delectable treat, look for firm, uniformly sized spears with closed, compact tips. I’ve been told that the larger stalks are more flavorful and tend to agree. Try to prepare it soon after purchase – asparagus does not seem to like sitting around in the fridge. If you need to wait a day or two, wrap the cut ends in a moistened paper towel and wrap in plastic. 

There are a number of ways to prepare Asparagus. Regardless of the method you prefer, make sure you take off the bottom of the stalk – which can be hard and woody. A favorite tip of mine is to snap the whiteness end of one spear – it will break to delineate the tender top from the hard bottom. Then you can line up the remainder of the bunch of stalks and cut off the bottoms in line with the one that snapped naturally.

I’m listing basic cooking instructions below followed by some favorite recipes. Many people have long considered asparagus to be a delicacy and reserved it for special occasions. Considering its versatility and considerable health benefits – I hope it becomes a spring staple in more kitchens. I know I’ll be picking up a bunch whenever I see it.

Steaming – cut asparagus into 2 inch pieces and place in a steamer basket, dropping it into a pan of shallow boiling water. Turn the heat down to medium, cover the pan, and cook the asparagus 2 to 5 minutes or until crisp tender.

Boiling – bring water to boil in a shallow pan. Cook asparagus in boiling water until crisp-tender, about 4 to 6 minutes. Remove immediately and place in ice bath to shock to stop cooking process.

Sautéing – heat olive oil in a sauté pan until quite hot. Add asparagus (whole spears or cut into pieces) and cook 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Roasting – Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Toss asparagus spears in olive oil and sea salt. Spread prepared asparagus on a baking sheet in a single layer. Avoid overcrowding as the asparagus will steam rather than roast. Roast for approximately 10 minutes.

Grilling (my personal favorite) – Have the grill heated to a medium heat. Toss with olive oil and sea salt. Place the stalks on the grill so that they are perpendicular to the grates. You can even thread them onto skewers or use a grill basket. Grill the asparagus for 5 or 6 minutes, turning them slightly every few minutes to provide even grilling.

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Pasta with Asparagus & Goat Cheese

Ingredients

  • 2 bunches asparagus
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2  tablespoons finely chopped shallot
  • 12 ounces short pasta (fusilli, penne, gemelli, etc.)
  • 1 small log soft goat cheese (5 ounces)
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons fresh oregano
  • 4 tablespoons pine nuts (optional)
  • Zest of one lemon

Instructions

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for pasta.

Remove tough ends from asparagus and cut into 2-inch lengths. In a medium bowl, toss asparagus with 2 tablespoons olive oil and minced shallots. Season with salt and pepper. Place asparagus on a large rimmed baking sheet. Try to avoid having pieces touching – this will result in steamed as opposed to roasted asparagus. Set bowl aside for later use. Roast until tender, tossing occasionally, approximately 10 minutes.

While asparagus is roasting, generously salt boiling water. Add pasta, and cook until al dente, according to package instructions. Set aside about one cup of the pasta water; drain pasta and return to pot.

In the medium bowl used for tossing the asparagus, combine goat cheese, remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1/2 cup pasta water. Season with salt and pepper, and mix until smooth. Add goat-cheese mixture and asparagus to pasta; toss to combine, adding more pasta water if necessary for sauce to coat pasta. Toss in chopped oregano. Serve pasta garnished with toasted pine nuts and lemon zest.

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Chilled Asparagus with Lemon Vinaigrette

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Sea salt

 Vinaigrette Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon shallot, finely minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

Roast asparagus according to instructions for Pasta recipe above – but keep spears whole rather than cutting into pieces. Grilled asparagus would also be delicious for this recipe. Cook only until al dente – closer to 8 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Place in Ziploc bag and place in refrigerator to chill – approximately 1 hour or overnight.

Prepare the vinaigrette by whisking all ingredients together until smooth and starting to thicken a bit.

To serve, place asparagus on serving platter and spoon vinaigrette over the spears.

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