Along with maple syrup, fiddle heads and rhubarb, asparagus is a harbinger of spring, a clarion that the winter is behind us and fresh produce is ready to roll out consistently. There aren’t many chefs – or restaurant patrons who really care about good food – who don’t look forward to asparagus season.
To taste the early season, try to eat a beautiful green stalk raw – immediately – after it has been picked: it has amazing flavour and juiciness. It grows well in many areas in the south of the province, and there are a number of producers in Ontario if you want to source local asparagus.
The plant’s earliest, most tender stalks are a vibrant apple green with a tip tinged with purple – the colour that we associate with royalty. And the slender vegetable is indeed a royal guest as it starts to appear on restaurant menus. In fact, the earlier in the season, the sweeter the asparagus: the stalks grow from underground rhizomes and, because they must be picked by hand, it helps explain the vegetable’s price at times.
The Romans and none other than Julius Caesar loved the stalk; he simply ate it with his hands. There’s even a Roman phrase: “Faster than you can cook asparagus.” Centuries later, ancient chefs created cooking vessels which kept the thicker stalks submerged in the cooking liquid while leaving the delicate tips above water to be steamed. There were also inventive serving bowls designed for the shape of asparagus which had hollow sides that were filled with boiling water to keep the freshly cooked asparagus warm.
At the table, beurre noisette, with its dark hazelnut flavour and colour, has been drizzled over asparagus for centuries of dining. Asparagi alla Parmigiana is an authentic dish of Emilia-Romagna, wherein resides Parma, Italy: cooked asparagus tips are sprinkled generously with Parmesan cheese and melted butter. In Tuscany, a food Mecca if there ever were one, asparagus soup is made with saffron, pine nuts and pistachios.
White asparagus, a more expensive version of the vegetable, but one that retains a certain perceived luxury quality, is popular in Europe. It is grown covered with mounds of earth to inhibit chlorophyll production and has to be harvested by being cut underground, a labour-intensive process that adds to its cost.
Using the time-honoured mechanical method of preparing asparagus, gently bend the stalk with fingers holding opposite ends aiming for the point where woody and tender meet, and snap it off. You can finish the preparation by shaving the woody end with a harp peeler to create a more uniform size for cooking.
In terms of ways to serve asparagus, simple is often best. You can do the Julius Caesar trick: just prepare the asparagus spears with a dose of melted butter, as he liked it. Adding a bit of fennel to the butter gives a lovely anise flavour to the dish.
Grilling the raw asparagus and giving it a liberal salting and peppering along with a squeeze of lemon, a few glugs of some good olive oil and perhaps shavings of Parmesan cheese is an excellent way to highlight this bit of early summer. Grill the spears in batches according to their diameter for even cooking.
When the season is moving toward its close, a classic cream of asparagus soup may be in order; garnish it with the delicate tips and a drizzle of cream or olive oil to present it simply and beautifully. Another classic, asparagus Polonaise, is ready for a culinary comeback when it comes to the spears: dress cooked hot asparagus with hard-boiled egg yolk that has been passed through a fine-meshed sieve, drizzle with melted butter and golden-toasted breadcrumbs. For the morning daypart, there are probably few breakfasts as delicious as an omelette with fresh asparagus tips and a few scallions, cut on the bias, for garnish.
As a salad, mix grilled asparagus pieces with a bit of pesto, Parmesan, and perhaps some slices of smoked salmon. Toss with olive oil and lemon juices, a few croutons and top with a sunny-side up egg. Garnish with Parmesan shavings.
While fresh is best, remember that asparagus is remarkable as a preserve, so consider a quick pickle. Put together a mix of vinegars with about 100 grams of sugar per litre of liquid. Add peppers, spices, herbs like tarragon or rosemary and garlic. Boil the mixture, pour it over the asparagus in jars and store in the fridge. Your customers will be able to enjoy the local asparagus of May in the depths of February cold.
As the season rolls through its prime months of May and June and approaches July, the rhizomes begin to weaken and become depleted leaving the asparagus less flavourful.
This tender crop loses its freshness very quickly – in a matter of hours, actually, and more rapidly than other vegetables, especially in the first 24 hours. Store asparagus cool and away from light. The stalk continues to draw on its sugars becoming tougher and less juicy.
To re-invigorate it before cooking, give it some sweetness: add about a teaspoon of sugar to a half-cup of water and soak the asparagus before cooking.