Asparagus emerges from the ground each spring like a spindly green alien checking out life on earth. I’d never seen it grow before I moved to the Hudson Valley, but now there’s nothing that makes me happier than plucking these succulent stalks that represent the departure of winter and the promise of summer’s bounty. The veggie grows so fast (up to seven inches a day!) you can almost watch it grow. One Wednesday last spring during its all-too short season from late April through May, I visited Greig Farm in Red Hook (where I go several times during the season to pick my own asparagus) to see the patch plucked bare. “Come back on Friday,” said Norman Greig. “It’ll be 80°F tomorrow and we’ll be full up again then.” I came back and sure enough, asparagus galore.
For those of you who don’t know your asparagus history, the vegetable hails from the eastern Mediterranean and has been consumed for over 2,000 years. In fact, Roman Emperor Augustus so prized asparagus that he had special boats known as his “Asparagus Fleet” sent out to procure the best varieties from throughout the Mediterranean and bring them back to Rome. Louis XIV of France also loved asparagus and had greenhouses built at Versailles so he could enjoy it year-round.
According to text from the 1st century AD, Roman gourmet Apicius recommended that asparagus stalks be placed in boiling water “backwards” with the heads protruding from the water so they would be tenderized by the rising steam while the denser part of the stalks cook. This is solid advice for anyone who’s turned the tips to mush while waiting for the stalks to catch up. Asparagus is also delicious roasted in the oven, cooked on the grill, or sautéed over high heat. Simply toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, or for something transcendent, use butter and Parmesan.
When it comes to selecting asparagus, look for firm stalks with tightly closed tips. Thin stalks are best for steaming and stir-frying while thick spears hold up better for grilling and roasting. To store asparagus, place the stalks in a glass of water in the refrigerator, tips up, like a bouquet of flowers.
While most asparagus grown in the U.S. is green, you’ve no doubt noticed purple and white varieties. Purple asparagus is unique, with a higher sugar content and nuttier taste. It turns green when cooked so, for dramatic effect, it’s best served raw. Although freshly picked asparagus is quite tender, some people prefer it shaved raw in a salad. White asparagus is the same variety as green but since it’s grown underground, it doesn’t produce the chlorophyll that turns asparagus green and is slightly milder in taste. White asparagus is especially popular in Germany, where it’s known as “edible ivory.”
When growing your own asparagus, you may be surprised to learn that stalks can be either male or female. Since male asparagus have high yields and more uniform stalks, breeders have produced all-male varieties for growers. One variety that Hudson Valley gardeners should seek out is Millennium, a new high-yielding, all-male asparagus breed from Ontario that’s cold-hardy and suited to a variety of soils. Asparagus is a perennial and takes two to three years to produce edible stalks, but be patient and you can look forward to up to 20 years of asparagus goodness.