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Ingredient in Focus: Asparagus

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jun 19, 2009 4:20PM

We’re in the midst of Asparagus high times, but before you know it, the season will be over until next year. Stacks of the green stalks reaching 3 feet high (and selling for reasonable prices) will give way to anemic bunches sitting in water-filled trays at your local market. How should you take advantage of this bounty? By learning something about this first veggie of the season, that’s how!

Asparagus.jpg Where it's from: The actual growth process of the plant is a mystery to most non-gardeners - we’ve had friends try to tell us that it grows on trees! In fact, the asparagus stalk is more like a well-cultivated weed. What we eat is just the tip of the plant, shaped to push it’s way out of the soil. When it gets to be about a foot high, growers chop it off and send it to us - and the plant keeps growing, producing asparagus again and again. It can take up to three years to bring an asparagus patch to production, so it’s a bit of an investment.

What to look for: Asparagus is VERY perishable - probably the most perishable of all modern vegetables. It begins to lose its taste and crispness immediately after harvest, which is why getting it at a farmer’s market is doubly important. We’ve honestly stopped bothering with off-season asparagus - it tastes like stringy plastic. Look for individual stalks that can stand up on their own and watch out for bundles tightly tied or banded together, which can disguise limp stalks. Take a stalk out and test it. The buds on the head should be glossy and tightly grouped together. Contrary to popular belief, the thickness of the stalk doesn’t indicate age or freshness, though it may indicate tenderness and cooking time.

Types: Standard, green asparagus seems to be the norm in Chicago farmer’s markets, and we are certainly not against it. If you’ve never tried it, buy some purple asparagus - it tends to be sweeter and less bitter than green asparagus. We haven’t seen any Chicago growers selling white asparagus, which is actually the same species as green asparagus. Growers simply prevent the stalks from getting very much sunlight, so the green chlorophylls in the stalk never develop.

Storage: As stated, asparagus needs to be eaten ASAP. However, if you buy a ton of asparagus at a good price and you need to keep it, here is what to do. Wrap the bottoms of the stalks in a wet paper towel and put the whole bundle in a zip-top plastic bag. Push all the air out that you can, and stack it in the refrigerator. Another great option is to freeze the asparagus, but it has to be quickly boiled first - Local Beet has a great feature on how to keep your asparagus for the winter.

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