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,
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
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: