COME THE FIRST FEW WEEKS OF SPRING, pale, winter-weary consumers begin hovering over the vegetable bin at farmers’ markets, anticipating the arrival of the crown jewel of spring vegetables: fresh, young asparagus.
In the Hudson Valley the asparagus harvest usually begins in late April and lasts for four to six short weeks. For chefs, foragers and home cooks, this means getting as much as you can in the time that these local spears are available, and peppering menus and home recipes with their flavors.
At the markets, look for firm, smooth stalks with tightly closed tips and a rich green color. Avoid spears that are dry or limp or yellow-spotted. Once picked, asparagus has a short shelf life, so plan on eating it as soon as possible. (If necessary, it can be stored for a few days in the refrigerator with the cut ends wrapped in a damp paper towel, or stand the whole bunch up in a container with about a half-inch of water.)
Young asparagus shoots are entirely edible, though if the base of the stem shows any signs of woodiness it should be cut off. Some cooks routinely trim the shoots and only cook the tips; others use a vegetable peeler to remove the slightly thicker outer layer of the stem before cooking (trimmings go into soups).
Asparagus spears are most often served steamed or grilled. Try rubbing the stems with olive oil, salt and pepper before grilling. (Your oven’s broiler will do the trick if your gas or charcoal grill hasn’t yet been brought out of winter storage.) Asparagus also is a particularly nice addition to a simple vegetable stir-fry.
For an easy appetizer, try rolling lightly steamed asparagus spears with slices of prosciutto. Then crisp them under the broiler and drizzle with balsamic.
Nutritionally, asparagus contains a high amount of Vitamins A and C, and is easy to digest—the distinct but harmless odor it gives urine has also helped create a reputation as a medicinal plant. Although it’s not quite a cure-all, there’s no denying asparagus helps restore the body, or at the very least, brings our taste buds out of hibernation.