Asparagus 101

Treat them right and asparagus lives up to be the world's sexiest finger food.

06 Nov 2009


Asparagus is the edible member of the lily family along with garlic, onions and leeks, and falls in the stalk and shoot vegetable category as do Swiss chard, celery, fennel and the Mediterranean cardoon, an edible thistle and close relation of the globe artichoke. Asparagus was first cultivated by the Egyptians and Romans and the name asparagus comes from the Greek word meaning "sprout" or "shoot."


There are four types of asparagus: green, white, purple and wild asparagus. White asparagus is thick with purple tips; it's grown in the dark, with soil heaped up to its tips, and is loved by Germans, Belgians and the French. Green asparagus ranges from pencil-thin to very thick and is the one most commonly found in SA. It's the same vegetable as white asparagus except it is grown above the ground where photo-synthesis turns it green. Thin-speared and piquant green asparagus is known as sprue and comes from a young plant. They're exceptionally tender and need only brief cooking. Purple asparagus, called viola is the variety most commonly found in England and Italy and has a very thick and substantial stalk. Wild asparagus is found in France and Italy, but rarely is sold at the markets, so you'll have to hunt for your own. Asparagus is relatively expensive as it takes the vegetables three years before harvest.


When buying asparagus, look for shoots with smooth, dry and straight spears and tips that are firm and closed. If the spears are wrinkled or floppy, don't buy them. You can store them, wrapped in plastic, in the fridge but use within a couple of days. You can also freeze asparagus for up to eight months, blanch by plunging into boiling water for three to four minutes and remove immediately to chilled water. Drain, pack into containers, label and freeze. Don't defrost before using.


When you're ready to cook them, wash and trim off a little of the dry ends, but do so shortly before cooking as it dries out quickly. Asparagus shoots have a 'natural breaking point', so simply hold the shoot with both hands and bend, it will snap off at the right point. The ends can be used in soups or stocks.

Green asparagus is tender and sweet and can be steamed, boiled or stir-fried. You can cook white asparagus in the same way, but you'll need to peel it to remove its outer woody layer first. Ideally asparagus should stand bundled in a tall, narrow pan with the tips sticking out of the water where they'll be gently steamed while the more hardy part is boiled. Asparagus is done when the colour is bright and vivid and the stalk is tender when pierced with a fork.

To boil asparagus, tie them in bunches (for easy removal when done) and add enough water to your saucepan to just cover up to the tips. Add 1 tsp (5 ml) salt and cook until tender crisp; this could be as quickly as 2 minutes, especially if the stalks are young. Drain well and if you're serving them warm, use immediately. If you're serving them 'cold' (never refrigerated as this dulls the flavour) or are going to use them in another recipe, rinse them with cold water to stop the cooking process.

Other methods of cooking include steaming for four to eight minutes, tightly covered; drizzled with oil and oven-roasted at 260 degrees C for eight to ten minutes or microwaving covered with 15ml water on high for four to six minutes. Some like to stir-fry asparagus, which is excellent, but this should be done for only a minute or two and for better cooking should be sliced on the diagonal before being put in the pan.


Asparagus is served either hot or cold, and traditionally eaten with the fingers. Serve simply drizzled with olive oil and lemon, or in a vinaigrette with chopped, hard-boiled egg and parsley. One of the best ways to serve these shoots is warm with melted butter, a herb butter sauce or a hollandaise sauce flavoured, traditionally, with the juice of blood oranges. In Germany asparagus is often served simply topped with fried breadcrumbs, but you can top them with crumbled feta cheese, chopped almonds, crispy bacon, fried button mushrooms, spring onions, and of course butter and fresh herbs such as chives, parsley, chervil, savory.

Ten things to do with asparagus:

Asparagus and broccoli scramble

Asparagus and artichoke risotto

Asparagus micardo

Creamy asparagus and pea pasta

Asparagus fish

A crown of Asparagus

Pasta with lemon, feta and fresh asparagus

Roast asparagus and beef wraps

Camembert and asparagus tarts

Asparagus soufflé spiked with basil

Read more on: asparagus  |  how to

NEXT ON FOOD24X publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.