A HARBINGER OF SPRING
In the United States fresh asparagus, shipped from South America, is available in groceries year round. But it’s at its tasty best when it is in season, fresh and local. On the West coast, asparagus season is from February to May, and in the East it’s limited to May and June.
So, how can you tell if asparagus is fresh? First, the tips should be compact and tightly closed. The slice at the bottom, root end of the spear should appear fresh and dewy, not brown and dried out. And the spear itself should be firm, not limp, and brightly colored.
You will find asparagus that is pencil thin or as large in circumference as your big toe. While asparagus is usually bright green, some varieties are purple (they turn dark green when cooked) or even white (popular in Europe, white asparagus grows buried in mulch so it is not exposed to the chlorophyll generating effect of sunlight, which would turn it green – note that white asparagus must be peeled and takes longer to cook than other varieties). Wrapped in a damp paper towel inside a plastic bag, asparagus will keep for three days or so in a crisper tray in your refrigerator.
Boiling or steaming are very easy ways to cook asparagus. If you are steaming, bring 1 inch of water to a boil in the base of the steamer, and place the spears lying flat in one layer into the steamer insert. Place the insert over the boiling water, cover and steam for about 3 minutes (more or less, based on the thickness of the spears). If you are boiling, bring several inches of well salted water to a simmer in a wide enameled cast iron or stainless steel pot (a skillet works here, too), add your asparagus cook at a rapid simmer for between 2 and 4 minutes, depending on the size of the spears, remove with tongs and blot dry with paper towels. (If your recipe asks you to blanch asparagus, proceed as for boiling, but take the asparagus out of the water after only 60 seconds.)