Asparagus is the quintessential Spring vegetable, available most places March through June. But thick or Thin? Green, white, or purple? Here’s the skinny.
Though logic dictates that it must be so, thin asparagus stalks are probably NOT more tender than thick. Younger plants tend to produce larger shoots, which means thicker spears may be more tender than the skinny ones from more mature plants. Also, the amount of fiber in a stalk is the same whether it’s thick or thin, so it makes sense that a skinny stalk is tougher because the fiber is all bunched into a smaller area.
White asparagus is simply regular asparagus that has been deprived of sunlight. It’s like when you turn a rock over and there is pale yellow grass underneath that hasn’t yet seen the light of day. You’ll pay a lot of extra money (almost twice!) for that light deprivation, and it’s money spent mostly on the exotic appearance. Here again, logic can have you assuming it will be more tender than the green, but it can actually be more fibrous. It’s had a deprived life, after all, and had to struggle to survive.
Purple asparagus has a short season, and guess what! It turns green when you cook it. You’ll pay a lot of extra money to buy the purple color that doesn’t make it as far as the table.
Green is easiest to find and is as good or better than the expensive exotics. Look for firm spears with tips that have tight, overlapping scales. The tips may be bent, and that’s fine. Seedy, tasseled tips and sprouts that come out of the stalk further down both indicate that the asparagus is old. That’s not terrible, but it isn’t great, either. There shouldn’t be dark or blotchy bits, and the stems should be light-colored and firm. They should smell fresh, and if you smell anything else, don’t buy them.
Your bunch probably comes with two rubber bands. Take them both off over the bottom, NOT over the delicate tips. Those are the best part, and you want to treat them ever-so-gently. Keep the de-banded stalks dry and in a plastic bag in your fridge for 4-5 days, or cut off the bottom inch of all the stalks and stand the bunch up in a glass with an inch of water in it. Change the water out every day, and they’ll keep for some time.
The bottom of all asparagus is woody, stringy, and tough. You want that part to go away before you cook. The most common method for getting rid of those ends involves bending and breaking the stalks. When I do that, I feel as though I’m probably breaking off and tossing some good parts. It’s very imprecise and creates a LOT of waste. You probably end up throwing away almost half of what you paid for, so I’m not going to describe how to do that.
Here’s a better method:
Cut off the bottom inch of all the stalks, then use a vegetable peeler to peel away ONLY the lower 1/3-1/2 of the stalk, till you can see the lighter green and white part. Peeling takes time, but it makes a lot less waste and keeps the stalks long, elegant, and of approximately equal length. Leave the top part of the stalks as-is, because they’re already tender and beautiful.
- Boiling–In a wide skillet, bring about an inch of water to a boil. Add a teaspoon or two of salt to the water, then gently place the asparagus spears into the pan and spread them out. Cook them for only 3-6 minutes, depending on how thick the stalks are. They will turn brighter green and be tender-ish to a fork when they are done. If they start to turn greyish-yellowish, they’re overdone. Sprinkle with a few drops of lemon juice and some coarse salt just before serving.
- Steaming—Put 1 ½ inches of water in the bottom of a large saucepan or Dutch oven with a lid. Place the asparagus into a steamer basket and put the basket into the pan. Bring the water to a boil, cover, and simmer just till asparagus can be easily pierced with a fork. Again, the lemon juice and salt, or a pat of butter and a little freshly ground pepper, is enough.
- Roasting or grilling—gently toss the raw spears with olive oil, place in a single layer on a cookie sheet (or foil, for the grill), sprinkle with coarse salt, and roast at 425°, just till they start to char slightly. Turn the spears over to give the other side a chance to char, then get them out of there and onto the table! They cool fast, and they are magnificent when cooked this way and served hot. No additional seasoning needed!
Consider browsing through my main-dish podcasts for something nice to serve this with!