It’s spring. It’s asparagus. The quintessential expression of an awakening season is the appearance of fresh, snappy asparagus spears. Whether sprung from the overflowing produce stand or snapped from a garden bed, those bright green spears are sure evidence that spring has arrived.
This harbinger of the season is one of nature’s most delicious gifts. A member of the lily family and cultivated since ancient times, asparagus has long been considered a great delicacy. It was the Romans who discovered the culinary aspects of the vegetable and spread its cultivation throughout the world. Easily grown in mild climates and sandy soils, asparagus can be found growing nearly everywhere with its season running from March through June. Although markets stock asparagus year-round, growers limit their harvest and traditionally observe the 24th of June as the last picking day. Rapid changes occur in the plant during the limited growing period and needs the opportunity to rest in order to produce the next season’s crop.
Few vegetables have the impact of flavor like that of a thick, green stalk of asparagus. Thin asparagus shoots may look especially appealing on the plate, but culinary experts know that it’s the jumbo spears that pack the most flavor punch and I will always purchase the thickest stalks I can find. (An exception: on a recent trip to New Orleans’ famous Commander’s Palace restaurant I found myself devouring pencil-thin spears of fresh, bright green local asparagus bathed in sweet butter. A most memorable dish, I love asparagus so much I savored this side dish as my first course, sharing only because it was the polite thing to do.)
The size of the spears is dictated by the maturity of the plant from which it came and, depending on your preference, you’ll find every size available at the market. Choose bright green, firm stalks with closed, compact, and tight tips and avoid bases that are dried out and woody. Asparagus is best consumed as soon as possible but can be stored in the refrigerator a day or two loosely wrapped in paper. Any longer, place the stalks, tips up, in a container of water.
Asparagus is a snap to cook. Trim the tough ends and peel thicker stalks if you prefer. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and plunge the asparagus into the water. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until crisp-tender, approximately three minutes. To steam, prepare the steamer with about two cups of water and bring to a rapid boil. Place the stalks in the steamer rack and count on two or three more minutes until done. Delightful to eat as it is healthy for you, asparagus is high in fiber and contains significant amounts of vitamins A, B, and C. Happy Spring!
This is a true spring treat. The immersion blender has revolutionized for me the ease of preparing pureed soups and the frequency of which I prepare them. I highly recommend this terrific kitchen tool.
Cream of Asparagus Soup with Spring Herb Gremolata
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 leeks, trimmed and sliced
4 pounds fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
6 cups chicken stock
¼ cup dry sherry
½ cup crème fraiche
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced
zest of 2 lemons
1 clove garlic, minced
In a heavy stockpot over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the leeks and sauté until tender approximately 3 minutes. Add the asparagus and stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the asparagus is very tender, approximately 20 minutes. Using a hand-held immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth. Stir in the sherry and crème fraiche and heat through. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. In a small bowl, mix together the parsley, lemon zest, and garlic. To serve, ladle the soup into soup bowls and garnish with the gremolata.