California grass is here! Fat or slender, steamed or roasted, even deep-fried: it’s just a week until the official beginning of spring, and that means, after a long winter of kale, kale, collards, and kale, beautiful asparagus–called ‘grass’ in the produce biz–is reappearing this month, right alongside the daffodils, tulips, and magnolia blossoms brightening every front yard.
Asparagus, you might be surprised to find out, used to be considered a member of the lily family (Liliaceae), which also included onions, garlic, leeks and the rest of the edible and ornamental alliums. But the botanical powers that be have since split that family, making a separate Asparagaceae genus of some 300 mostly ornamental species. However, unless you have a botany geek among your midst, it’s still fun to amaze your friends with your mastery of obscure plant facts by mentioning the asparagus-lily connection, should conversation around the buffet need a goose.
What’s really interesting, however, is how asparagus grows. It’s a perennial plant, for starters, growing from a tangled, ring-like “crown” planted some six to eight inches below the surface of the soil. Once an asparagus patch is well established (it generally takes about 3 years to become fully productive), it can last for decades. The asparagus spears work like bulbs–in the same way that tulips and daffodils push up their stems and leaves from their storehouse underground, so an asparagus patch can be bare dirt one day and a forest of insouciant little tips the next. The spears come up in leaps and bounds, an inch one morning and practically full-size the next.
Some commercial asparagus growers have to harvest their fields several times a day to keep a consistent size and shape. The spears come up without distraction–no leaves, no flowers, no frills. Once they’re long enough to harvest, out come the knives, cutting them off just below soil level. Like peas, asparagus are most tender and succulent straight out of the garden, which makes them worth seeking out straight from the farmer rather than at the supermarket.
The stalks should be turgid and smooth, not flaccid, pithy, or ridged. The tiny leaves should still be tight against the stalk, and the tips should be firm, the leaf tips closed with no sign of rot or sliminess at the top. The best way to judge freshness is to look at the base: really fresh asparagus will look moist, almost translucent. A day later, it’s chalky; after that, it’s solid white, with woodiness moving up the stalk.
You can feel where the tenderness of an asparagus stalk starts, just by bending it gently about three-quarters of the way down the stalk. Hold it with the tip pointing to your right, and you’ll feel it: tender over to the right, woody to the left. Snap it right where the stiffness gives, keeping in mind that the fresher it is, the less you’ll have to take off.
Cooking asparagus is a lot like cooking corn: you’re not so much cooking it as just heating it through, nudging it gently over the line from raw to tender. Asparagus moves very quickly from green and tender to khaki and mush, and once gone, there’s no bringing it back. You can steam-simmer it in a wide, flat saute pan, spreading it out in a bare half-inch of boiling salted water, moving it around with tongs to keep it cooking evenly, whisking it out into an ice bath the moment it starts to give.
Or you can flash-roast it, my favorite method. Preheat your oven to 450F. Lay your asparagus out on a baking sheet, drizzling olive oil over the tips, rolling the rest of the spears around in whatever’s left. Go lightly: you don’t want the stalks to dry up like paper in oven’s blast of heat, but neither do you want them dripping and soggy with oil. Sprinkle with sea salt and grind on some coarse black pepper. Pop in the oven for 5-7 minutes, depending on your oven. They should be supple with perhaps a little ambered charring here and there. Again, don’t overdo it, otherwise the lovely succulent tips will end up shriveled and chewy-brown.
To serve them as is, add a generous squeeze of lemon juice and perhaps a little flurry of finely grated lemon rind. (Meyer lemons are very nice, should you have a backyard tree.) Tangerine or even blood-orange juice can make for an interesting change. I find that roasted asparagus tastes best still warm; if you’re planning to cook ahead, I’d stick with steaming, and don’t put anything acid (citrus juice, vinegar) onto it until just before serving, as the acid will turn your grass from bright green to a muddy pea-soup shade very quickly.
Hollandaise sauce, in my opinion, is the most perfect accompaniment to asparagus, a suitably rich gilding for the season’s first crop. But with its tricky-to-make reputation and Mad-Men ingredient list (butter, butter, egg yolks, lemon juice, butter), it’s pretty much fallen out of favor among home cooks, reserved only for eggs Benedict at birthday brunches. Instead, here’s a lovely spring salad to green up your table, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day this week.