With its uniquely delicate flavour and texture, asparagus is the quintessential
"luxury" vegetable. Enjoy it in season, when the price goes
down: Asparagus contains a good supply of folate (folic acid), as well
as some vitamin C and, in green asparagus, some beta-carotene. Asparagus
also contains the phytochemical glutathione, which has antioxidant and
Asparagus deteriorates rapidly when not kept cold, so buy asparagus
where it is kept refrigerated or displayed on trays with the stalks
standing in cold water. In outdoor markets, the trays should be shaded
from the sun.
The best-quality spears are firm yet
tender, with deep green or purplish tips that are closed and compact
(with no signs of flowers beginning to form); partially open or wilted
tips are the most obvious signs of aging. Stalks should stand straight,
be green for most of their length, and have a nicely rounded cross-section;
flat or twisted stalks are often tough and stringy.
Some people like thick stalks, some
people prefer more slender asparagus, but size is not directly related
to quality; still, stalks that measure at least 1/2" in diameter
at the base are usually preferable. Asparagus is usually sold in bundles,
but if you can buy it loose, select spears of uniform size, which will
deciding on quantity, remember that asparagus loses about half of its
total weight once it's been trimmed and cooked. For a main dish, buy
half a kilo of asparagus for two people; as a side dish, the same quantity
serves three to four.
Keep fresh asparagus cold to preserve its tenderness and as much of
its natural sweetness as possible. Wrap the stalk bottoms in a damp
paper towel and store in the refrigerator salad drawer; if you don't
have one, put the spears in a plastic bag and store in the coldest part
of the refrigerator. It's best to eat asparagus the day you buy it,
the flavour can diminish noticeably with each passing day, but it will
keep for four to five days if refrigerated.
Wash asparagus in cool running water. If the tips have any sand on them,
dunk them in and out of water, then rinse thoroughly. Cut or break off
the tough bottom ends of the stalks.
asparagus quickly, or it will be unappetisingly limp and discoloured
and have a bitter taste. The stalks are done when you can pierce the
bottom end with the point of a paring knife. After cooking, lift out
the spears and let them drain for a minute on a paper towel. If you
plan to serve the asparagus cold, plunge it immediately into cold water
to stop it from cooking further.
Steaming: One of the best ways to cook
asparagus is to steam it upright in a small amount of water; this way,
the delicate tips of the stalks will cook at the same rate as the thick
bottoms. Use a tall, lidded pot, or a double boiler (invert the upper
portion over the lower). There are also special asparagus cookers designed
for this purpose. Or, you can lay the stalks flat in a collapsible vegetable
steamer placed in a large skillet.
To handle the asparagus easily, tie
the spears into bundles of 10 with kitchen string. Add 2" of water
to the pot, bring to a rapid boil, then cover. (You can add a clove
of garlic, a slice of onion, or a lemon wedge to the water.) Cooking
time: five to eight minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears.
Stir-frying: Cut the spears into 1"
to 2" pieces for stir-frying. For an attractive look, cut the asparagus
pieces on the diagonal. Cooking time: three to five minutes.
Boiling: Bring about 1" of water
to a rapid boil in a large skillet; drop in the asparagus, adding the
thickest stalks first and letting them cook for a minute before adding
the rest. Quickly bring to a second boil and cook, uncovered. Cooking
time: three to five minutes, depending on thickness.
Arrange a bunch of spears in an oblong microwavable dish, with the tips
pointing toward the center. Add 60ml of water and cover. Rotate the
dish halfway through the cooking time. Cooking time: five to seven minutes.
Trim the stalks, then place them in a baking dish and lightly drizzle
with a small amount of olive oil. Roast them uncovered at 500ºF/
250°C / gas mark 9. Cooking time: eight to ten minutes.