Yep, I said it. Asparagus is part of the liliaceae (lily) family, which is a cousin of the allium (onion) family. I know, I know. It’s a far reach calling a pointy green spear an onion. But, science!
There’s more to asparagus than meets the eye. Believe it or not, they aren’t only green. They can be purple or white as well. Asparagus, with their slender spears and conical tops, are an herbaceous perennial. If you look closely at their scaled tips, you are actually looking at young shoots of the plant. When asparagus are left to grow wild in a field, they grow and grow, and the crowns open up like a fern. When fall arrives, the plant dies back.
Patience is a virtue when growing asparagus because it takes about 3 to 4 years to produce an edible spear. But once the wait is over, they’re one of the tastiest and easiest vegetables to cook.
When I bite into asparagus, the flavor reminds me of a cross between broccoli and a super intense green bean with a lingering earthiness. White and purple asparagus are a bit milder. Those are what I like to call “flavor soakers”. They soak up the flavor of whatever ingredients are cooking nearby in the pan.
There are a multitude of ways to cook asparagus. You can steam, fry, roast, sauté, stir fry, braise, grill, poach, pickle and even eat them raw or add them to stews. Whichever way you prefer to cook them, you better move quickly because asparagus season only lasts two months. So, eat ‘em up while they’re here!
What makes white asparagus and green asparagus different?
White asparagus are grown without sunlight. Unlike their sibling, green asparagus, which are grown above ground, white asparagus dwell underground. As white asparagus grow, they are covered with more dirt to prevent them from gaining color. White asparagus have a very short season, just a month long. They’re somewhat of a luxury item, but if you see them, get them. They have a wonderful flavor and pair well with almost everything you cook with them.
How does purple asparagus get its color?
The quick answer is anthocyanin. This is a pigmented antioxidant that is also found in many dark berries. Purple asparagus pack more nutrients than other kinds due to these antioxidants. However, that deep purple color turns green when cooked…whomp…whomp. If you want to keep that beautiful purple color, it’s best to eat them raw. I like to shave mine into salad!
Asparagus have a fairly short history compared to many other vegetables. People really only started eating them about 3,000 years ago. The garden varieties originated in Eastern Mediterranean countries, while their wild counterparts can be traced back to Africa. Many archeologists believe that the Egyptians were the first to cultivate asparagus.
Ancient Greeks cherished asparagus as a sacred aphrodisiac. Asparagus’ biological and pharmaceutical qualities were of great interest to them. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek doctor, used asparagus to treat diarrhea and urethra pain. Asparagus contains asparagines, a well-known diuretic.
Asparagus was considered royal in the 16th and 17th centuries because royal courts in Europe often served them. Louis XIV of France had it cultivated in his gardens because he enjoyed it so much, and only shared it with his noble peers. By the time the 18th century rolled around, everyone was allowed to enjoy the humble asparagus.
What to look for when buying asparagus
The first thing to remember is that asparagus aren’t perfect. The won’t all be pencil straight. Some curve a bit.
Secondly, size does matter. Thin asparagus are ever so slightly more tough than thick asparagus. As an asparagus matures, it becomes thinner since it expends all its energy early in the harvest season to produce thicker asparagus. However, size isn’t the best way to judge asparagus because it’s rare for any asparagus to be too tough to enjoy.
Colorwise, look for bright green spears with a violet-tinge. Make sure the tips are firm and tightly compact. This is a sign they are beautifully mature. When the tips are loose, that means the asparagus has over matured and is less fresh to eat.
Squeeze your asparagus gently, and the bunch should squeak a bit. This tells you that the asparagus is fresh and crisp. The stems should also not be limp. It’s best to avoid woody-looking stems.
The best way to store asparagus is to treat them as you would flowers. Simply trim off the bottoms and place them in bowl or vase of water, then set them in the fridge. Another great way to store asparagus is by trimming the bottoms and wrapping them in a paper towel. Place them in a plastic bag and they will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days.